Manila is one of the most exciting and free-spirited capitals in South-east Asia with a common national obsession: food. City chefs and local foodies guide us through these buzzing alleys of flavour and discuss why their thriving capital is the dining superstar of the future.
Why do foodies come to Manila?
Filipino cuisine is rich and diverse, just like its history. Centuries of Spanish colonisation have resulted in an acquired passion for saucy meat dishes such as adobo (stewed in vinegar; above), menudo (beef stomach in a red chilli-enhanced broth) and kaldereta (primarily a goat meat stew). Furthermore, influences also come from a long history of trading with the Chinese, and more recently from the West, Korea and Japan. These, infused with traditional Filipino heritage cuisine and popular local ingredients such as ube (purple yam), paco (local fern) and pandan leaf mean a cocktail of unique experiences that hungry globetrotters are eager to discover.
“The taste of Filipinos for food has always been adventurous, but in recent years, the food scene has exploded, with young entrepreneurs opening up new restaurants, experimenting and unafraid to try out bold new ideas. This is reflected in what we offer in hotels and it’s really quite exciting,” says Mark Heywood, general manager of the five-star AG New World Manila Bay Hotel, which is currently home to two of Manila’s most popular award-winning restaurants, Li Li and The Fireplace.
The Fireplace sous chef Ilan Bacher moved back to Manila after decades in Las Vegas’ premier steakhouses. He explains that the time was right to return. “I came back in 2013 because the food scene was starting to really take off in Manila, plus it’s my home. Similarly to Vegas, the city is today a melting pot of cultures and this has hugely influenced dining culture throughout. You’ll find some of the best international meat dishes, right here.”
He continues, “We specialise in steak at The Fireplace and so import the finest cuts from Japanese wagyu to Australian long-fed tomahawk. Steak is gathering a big following in the Philippines and restaurants are meeting the demands of locals and visitors alike.” The main feature of The Fireplace is a 10-foot copper-covered, wood-fired beech oven in full view of guests. This customised oven enhances the natural flavours of ingredients, giving meat and seafood a unique wood-fired taste. The taste extends even to their salad; the indulgent millionaire’s salad features crisp greens with grilled scallops, prawns and foie gras.
Over at trendy Modern European restaurant The Black Pig (above), chef Carlos Garcia sources ingredients fresh from the local market, even for signature dishes such as Local Bred Pork Jowl and Beef Shank Lasagne. “Our menu can be described as Modern European but it is essentially a mix of what I have seen around me, learned from my experiences working abroad and here, using ingredients that are available and what our customers crave to eat. In the last couple of years, the food scene in Manila has grown and evolved quite dramatically. Many restaurants are now more aware of the benefits of supporting local farmers, fishermen and artisans. In return, these local suppliers are also becoming more creative and open to growing and selling different ingredients not previously seen in our markets. There is also a big push by restaurants to create dishes that identify with Filipino culture,” he says
Local seafood is the way to go
Raffles Makati Mireio’s talented chef de cuisine Herve Clair echoes Carlos on the locally sourced front, emphasising the freshness of Manila seafood, “Seafood is huge in the Philippines and we bring that to our menu here at Mireio.” A crowd-pleaser is the uniquely designed smoked salmon tartare with Granny Smith apple and Dijon mustard cream (below). “My personal favourite, however, is the octopus confit, potato, French bean salad, crispy pancetta. The octopus is caught fresh locally,” adds Clair.
Dim sum catches on
Dim sum has become part of Philippine culture too, and there is no shortage of places to find it thanks to Manila’s Chinatown, located just across the Pasig River opposite Intramuros. “It is the oldest and one of the largest Chinatowns in the world,” says Chinese chef Raymond Yeung of Li Li Cantonese restaurant, who moved over from Hong Kong in 2009. Li Li is Manila’s number one for fine-dining dim sum (below) – Yeung and his team carefully sourcing the highest quality ingredients both within the Philippines and beyond.
“We seek the best whether that be from here or thousands of miles away. Chicken, for example, is incredible in the Philippines. We get ours locally, free range, 120 days old. Pork too is even better than where I am from in Hong Kong, quality wise. Our rice comes from Thailand – that’s grade AAA jasmine rice, which really is the best around.”
Signature dishes include deep-fried taro dumplings, siu mai, and baked puff pastry with honey barbecued pork, washed down with a range of delectable flowering teas.
Street eats still the go-to
Cao Ocampo is a foodie from Manila’s Quezon City, and is quizzed daily about eating out by guests at his workplace, Z Hostel. “There are so many good restaurants and markets to choose from. A new spot opens every month. Our flashpackers always ask me where to go for amazing street food, so I recommend the weekend markets in Salcedo or Legaspi. Our hostel is in Poblacion, which is really up and coming and a bit of a hipster neighbourhood. So I also suggest they check out the night market in A Venue which is walking distance away.”
Cao and his Z Hostel co-workers tuck into popular street eats during breaks such as kinilaw (raw fish cooked in vinegar), chicharon bulaklak (deep-fried pork ruffle fat), lechon sisig (fried roasted pork) and kohol cooked in gata (snails cooked in coconut milk). His favourite dish? “It’s kare kare, which is a stew in a thick savoury peanut sauce, because of its depth and use of ingredients. Also, I love sinigang soup because it reminds me of home.” Sinigang soup is sour and savoury.
Streets are bursting with food joints night in night out and show no sign of slowing down. In fact, more and more hungry tourists are arriving to get a taste of culinary heaven from all levels of dining. From booked up gourmet restaurants to lines outside grill shacks, it’s safe to say that the future is looking rather delicious for Manila.
PHOTOS: THE BLACK PIG, TIM KERSHAW (MIREIO), LI LI CANTONESE RESTAURANT, CAO OCAMPO(STREET FOOD)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.