Chinese or Filipino?: The History Behind 7 of Our Favorite Binondo Eats

September 11, 2013

While the Philippines and China continue to square off over Scarborough and other disputed territories, a food trip through the streets of Binondo can easily make you forget about those territorial squabbles. While defining the boundaries of our country and that of our populous neighbor’s is simple enough for anyone who can read a map, identifying precisely when and where the Chinese influence on our cuisine starts and ends is a lot trickier. It’d be akin to trying to separate the components of a bowl of Yang Chow fried rice.

Our country’s trade with China started long before the Spaniards came. Scholars have found documents involving the Chinese that date all the way back to the 11th century while archaeologists have found numerous artifacts that had made their way to our shores at least two centuries prior.

Chinese merchants brought over pottery and silk in exchange for agricultural products like rattan and beeswax. Some of the merchants eventually settled here, and whenever they craved for a taste of home, they whipped up their native dishes using local ingredients. A number of Chinese migrants married Filipino women as well, all of whom later learned to cook their husbands’ favorites. Over time, the wives began to improvise and impart regional twists onto traditional Chinese recipes. As the years passed, the difference between Chinese and Filipino cuisines became virtually blurred and indistinct.

The following are just a handful of the Middle Kingdom’s delicacies that we Filipinos have come to embrace as our own.

1. Siopao

Hailing from Fujian, this Hokkien specialty of barbecued meat in a soft bun is a popular snack throughout Southeast Asia. The siopao was originally called “baozi,” which literally means “steamed buns.” It was developed as a meal on the go for workers, as it could be consumed without utensils and the outer skin of the bun could be peeled off if dirtied by the diner’s fingers.

Siopao

A mother lode of these babies probably fueled the construction of the Great Wall.

The traditional asado siopao makes use of barbecued pork, or char siu bao, but Filipino bakers gradually took liberties with the filling, creating the bola-bola variant (a minced meat filling with a hard-boiled egg). They also experimented with sweetened monggo (mung bean) and ube (purple yam) to make a siopao dessert of sorts.  More modern interpretations have taken things even further: you can now buy a pizza-flavored siopao at the nearest Mini-Stop (just in case you can’t decide between a slice of pizza or a siopao for merienda).

2. Fried Rice

Though it’s now a staple at many Chinese banquets, fried rice was originally a poor man’s dish. Peasant families who couldn’t afford to buy big slabs of meat fried up small chunks of protein along with vegetables and leftover rice in order to stretch the meat. Early versions included bits of roasted pork, onions, peas, and even prawns for people who lived near a body of water. The recipe is thought to come from Yangzhou, hence the dish’s alternate name: “Yang Chow Fried Rice.”

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“Kanin pa lang, ulam na.”

Ordering a separate ulam along with a serving of Yang Chow fried rice is seen as indulgent by traditionalists, but it’s not unusual for the rice dish to accompany other entrées in our country. The homegrown Rice-in-a-Box even takes things a step further by offering various combinations of toppings and fried rice to those with appetites that require a little more protein.

3. Lumpia

The lumpia has been a mainstay at local fiestas for so long that it’s categorized as Filipino food. We enjoy two variations of the spring roll: lumpiang sariwa (fresh) and lumpiang Shanghai (fried). Lumpiang sariwa contains a mixture of minced ubod (coconut heart), chicken flakes, crushed peanuts, and sliced jicama, all rolled up in a yellowish egg crepe. It’s usually served with a sweet sauce made from chicken stock and fresh garlic thickened with starch. A variation on the fresh lumpia is the lumpiang hubad, which literally means “naked spring roll.” This version does away with the wrapper and serves the lumpia filling alone with the sauce. Lumpiang Shanghai is filled with ground pork or beef, minced onion, carrots, and spices. This mixture is bound by a beaten egg and placed in lumpia wrappers prior to being deep-fried.

lumpiangsariwa-1024x768

Fresh lumpia is one vegetable dish that doesn’t taste like rabbit food.

However, serving meat and vegetables in an edible wrapper is a Chinese technique that can be found all over Southeast Asia. The word “lumpia” is derived from “lunpia,” which is Hokkien for “thin wafer.” Also called “popiah”, the fresh spring rolls were first recorded in Fujian, where they were usually accompanied by salty condiments like soy sauce or shrimp paste. Lumpiang Shanghai, on the other hand, actually originated from the city that bears its name. One key difference between the original version and our local version, however, is that the former was served with a sweet and sour sauce while the latter is usually eaten with vinegar or ketchup.

4. Hopia

These bean-filled, crusty delicacies were first brought over to the Philippines by Fujian immigrants at around the turn of the 20th century. Hopia is Hokkien for “good pastry,” and it comes in two forms: the flaky bun type made with Chinese puff pastry and the cake-dough type that’s shaped like dice. The former is the more popular variant, and is habitually enjoyed with either of two fillings: monggo (mung bean) or baboy (pork). The latter contains candied winter melon, green onions, and candied pork back fat.

Holand hopia

Chinese hopia from “Holand.” Go figure.

While little has changed about the hopia over the years, enterprising Filipino-Chinese bakers have tried to be more innovative. The ube (purple yam) hopia, invented in the 1980’s, is usually credited to Mr. Gerry Chua, the founder of the Eng Bee Tin Chinese Deli. The purple-hued delicacy was traditionally sold as a Christmastime treat, but the clamor for its smooth, festive flavor led to it being available all year-round.

5. Siomai

Siomai or shu mai are bite-sized dumplings that originated in ancient times, when rural farmers would visit teahouses in the afternoon after a hard day’s work. Tea has been a standard drink in the Chinese empire ever since it was allegedly discovered by Emperor Shen Nung. The story goes that some camellia leaves accidentally fell into a pot of water he was boiling. Once teahouse owners discovered that eating something with the tea aided digestion, they started adding various snacks or dim sum to the menu. Siomai fillings initially varied according to the seasons: garlic chives were used in the spring, mutton and pumpkin in the summer, crab meat during autumn, and mixed seafood in the winter. Cantonese siomai is the most well-known variant, with its standard filling comprised of ground pork, one small whole or chopped shrimp, Chinese black mushrooms, green onions, and ginger. The center is usually garnished with an orange dot formed out of crab roe.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are few things more exciting than sitting in a restaurant and watching a steaming cart of these heading your way.

The local siomai we now enjoy combines ground pork and chopped carrots, with sliced jicama sometimes added as an extender. It is usually seasoned with soy sauce. A bit of pork fat is also sometimes added to the mixture to keep the dumplings moist while they steam. And although the siomai as a member of the dim sum family might have been intended as a light afternoon snack, it’s now enjoyed by Filipinos everywhere as a cheap, tasty entrée alongside a mound of hot, fluffy rice.

6. Kikiam

Originally spelled as que-kiam, these wrinkly logs of meat were developed as a way to make use of the skin that formed atop cooked bean curd in the tofu-making process. The original recipe called for minced pork, minced white shrimp, carrots, onions, garlic, Chinese mushrooms, water chestnuts, salt, pepper, and five-spice powder all rolled into a sheet of soybean wrapper, steamed, and then fried.

homemade-kikiam-pepper-ph-1-upload

The East’s answer to the West’s chicken fingers.

At present, ready-to-cook packs of kikiam are readily available in the frozen food section of your local grocery store. Food carts that peddle the stuff abound in the streets and in the malls. We’ve also featured a great, easy recipe for it here. The bean curd skin-wrapped treat is still stuffed with ground pork and vegetables, but most local versions now skip the steaming process and deep-fry the rolls directly after wrapping. Unlike its conventional forbears that were dipped in the usual sweet and sour sauce, today’s kikiam can be enjoyed with a variety of condiments that range from sugary to spicy.

7. Mami

Long before ramen became a much-abused hashtag, mami was the popular choice for those seeking comfort in a steaming bowl of noodle soup. Doughy noodles were being made in China long before Marco Polo arrived, and it’s even said that they provided the prototype for Italian pasta. There were two kinds of noodle soup: ban mian, which had flat, Hokkien-style egg noodles, and the wonton noodle, a Cantonese dish with firm, thin noodles in a light broth served with predominantly shrimp wonton dumplings and garnished with garlic chives.

mami

“Ramen’s too mainstream. I’m into this thing called mami, but you’ve probably never heard of it.”

A bowl of mami can now be had cheaply at just about any hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown (as well as your nearest Chowking), but it was a grade school teacher from Guangzhou who introduced it to the country. According to legend, Ma Mon Luk migrated to the Philippines in the hopes of making a fortune big enough to impress the wealthy parents of a girl he fell in love with in China. He started out by peddling Cantonese style chicken soup on the streets of Manila, slinging onto his shoulders a long bamboo stick with two metal containers on each end (not unlike the contraption used by most taho vendors). One bin contained noodles and chicken strips and the other stored chicken broth that was heated by live coals underneath. He called his noodle soup “gupit,” since he used a pair of scissors to cut up the noodles prior to ladling broth onto it and serving it to his customers. By the 1950’s, he and his mami had achieved nationwide fame, and to this day, his name remains a byword for a good bowl of chicken noodle soup.

There’s an old cliché that goes, “Too many cooks spoil the broth.” In most situations, perhaps that adage holds true, but the dishes listed here are clear exceptions. They prove that it is possible for different culinary influences (and many cooks from either side) to come together and produce something both new and enduring.


Image sources: laowaiblog / shangrilasfinestcuisine / panlasangpinoy / flickr / angsarap / pepper / bubblews

References:

Halsey, K. (2009). The Food of China: A Journey for Food Lovers. Whitecap Books Ltd.: Vancouver.

Fernandez, D. (2000). Palayok: Philippine Food Through Time, On Site, In the Pot. Bookmark, Inc.: Metro Manila.

Serna Estrella SEE AUTHOR Serna Estrella Serna is a slim piggy who heartily believes that salads are not real food and that desserts (fruit salad not included) should have their own food group. When she's not terrorizing people with her Grammar Nazi tendencies, she likes to hunt for the perfect afternoon tea spot that lets her pretend she's still in the age of Austen (albeit with electricity and better dental care).
19 comments in this post SHOW

19 responses to “Chinese or Filipino?: The History Behind 7 of Our Favorite Binondo Eats”

  1. Ishka says:

    Absolutely love Kikiam!

  2. Harold Casapao says:

    A chinese variation of Hopia I can think of is called Hiong Piah or Puff biscuit, made with flaky chewy exterior with sweet maltose filling. This was popularized by Malaysian-Chinese in Ipoh, MY. Kinda like eating a sweet and tough jamaican patty 🙂

    Authentic Kikiam or Ngo Hiang is very yummy combined with Pansit Bihon and Chili paste. Now I’m hungry…

  3. Adrian De Leon says:

    God bless Ma Mon Luk’s soul. Can you imagine Pinoy food culture without Mami? That hot bowl of goodness is my go to comfort food and hangover cure. Oh and siomai and siopao are just timeless. Great article!

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Ramen’s great and all, but for me, mami remains to be the ultimate noodle-based comfort food (and it’s wayyyy easier on the wallet too). 🙂 Thanks, Adee! 🙂

  4. JOHNTEE says:

    Ang estudyanteng gipit, sa Siomai kumakapit

  5. Benjamin Canapi says:

    Damn good article!

  6. hylander says:

    Great read, thanks Serna Estrella!

    Requesting for a food hack of Wai Ying siomai 🙂

  7. JJ says:

    “Pancit” is also a filipino-chinese hybrid! And so is “Humba”. I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m pure chinese but I was born here.

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Hello, JJ. Thanks for that. 🙂 Indeed it is, but my research turned up a lot of stuff on it so I’m giving it its own in-depth article soon. 🙂

  8. […] early Filipinos were introduced to the Chinese wok and, as a result, the economic wonder that is fried rice. But while the Chinese made fried rice to stretch the number of mouths that an expensive slab of […]

  9. […] or rice gruel, is another culinary legacy from early Chinese traders.  One key difference between our local lugaw and the traditional Chinese congee lies in the […]

  10. […] prices (and almost never get sick from any of it). From the famous isaw to the various kinds of siomai, the street food there serves as a common touchstone for many isko and iska, no matter what age or […]

  11. ano ni mousse! says:

    Siopao is the original hokkien term used by Fujian people here. Baozi is the mandarin word for siopao.

  12. […] and bite-sized cakes stuffed with a sweet meat filling are called puto pao as a tribute to the Chinese meat bun that inspired their […]

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