Asian noodles are invading the Metro. Better know what you’re dealing with before you sit down and attack

Who would think that something that’s been around  for 4,000 years would be anything but stale? Yet against expectation, the Asian variety of these flour paste strings are now so trendy it’s impossible to avoid   tangling with them.

Definitely Not Your Usual Cup of Noodles

Ah, the Japanese aesthetic! The simple functionality of a shoji screen, the stylized calm of a aresansui garden, the delicious subtlety of sashimi. We can wax ecstatic—and scour the thesaurus for synonyms—about the beautiful minimalism of Japanese culture.

And then there’s tonkotsu ramen. Originally from the Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu, tonkotsu, literally ‘pork bone’, is a broth made of said bones. No gentle simmering and meticulous straining here. It’s a rolling boil for hours and hours and hours until the bones are all but dissolved into tiny bits of calcium, marrow,  gelatin, and whatever other stuff bones are made of. All these tasty impurities floating about make the soup creamy and unbelievably meaty. Add herbs, spices,  succulent ramen noodles and toppings—the result is beyond hearty. To quote J. Kenji López- Alt of The Food Lab: it’s “the bowl with the most soul.”

At Ramen Nagi, the menu highlights five tonkotsu ramen choices, a culinary version of Super Sentai anime. Butao King is the arrow-straight team leader, classic  tonkotsu with chashu pork and handcrafted noodles. Akao (Red King), the impetuous hot-head, has garlic, chili oil and cayenne spiking a broth topped with a   miso-infused minced pork ball. Kuroo (Black King) appropriately dressed in blackened garlic and velvety squid ink, is the rebel of the lot. Midorio (Green King), a fusion of basil pesto and olive oil with tonkotsu’s unique flavor, is the nice guy maintaining the team spirit with a generous sprinkling of parmesan cheese. And the mysterious Limited King, a constantly changing special-edition tonkotsu, makes up the quintet as conceptualized by Ramen Master Ikuta Satoshi.

Tonkotsu ramen is the reverse of the Japanese cultural coin. It belongs in the jam-packed city streets lighted by neon and lanterns, where noisy vendors and  impromptu food stands litter the sidewalks, and largerthan-life animal models dance above pedestrians’ heads, inviting them into specialty restaurants. No  meditative haikus on tonkotsu here; it’s in-yourface manga.

Genus Pancit

Fast food is here to stay and the convenience is not lost on the average office worker. However, deep in his or her quietly despairing soul, there is a hankering for  food that hasn’t come out of an assembly line, full of preservatives and synthetic flavors. Brown-bagging doesn’t cut it. Besides, Filipinos have five main  meals a day, plus snacks. Even leaving out breakfast and dinner, it’s still a logistical nightmare.

Enter the Philippines’ all-purpose, all-in-one food: pancit. Introduced by the Chinese and re-invented by local ingenuity, this Asian noodle dish has as many  different incarnations as a hopia has flakes. Pancit is appropriate for any meal: breakfast to midnight snack, celebrations and wakes, indoors or outdoors. As a  side dish, as the main course, or all by itself, pancit is so adaptable that it has become a household institution. Indeed, many families have their own pancit  versions with names that would delight a taxonomist: pancit musiko, pancit guisado, pancit con caldo and so on.

For the white-collar masses in the Makati business district, Chopstix Noodle Shop is the place to satisfy their craving for their preferred jolt of pancit. The  extensive noodle menu includes home-grown varieties not found in most noodle restaurants. There’s miswa with bola-bola and patola, the perfect balance of  carbs, meat, and veg. Pancit palabok’s almost pasta-like noodles in a piquant annatto sauce sprinkled with chopped chicharon makes a great alternative to fast  food spaghetti. And pancit lomi, fat, lyesoaked wheat noodles adding body and a pleasantly sweet taste to a pork and chicken broth. Perfect fare on a rainy  afternoon before braving the long, trafficky commute home.

Chopstix Noodle Shop
RT 004 Podium 3
Yuchengco Tower, RCBC Plaza
Ayala Avenue, Makati City
(+63 2) 551-4817

Where Else But in Chinatown

People go to malls to shop. They go to Binondo to buy — everything from kumquats to funerary fixtures. The Chinese didn’t come to the Philippines to colonize,  evangelize, or modernize. They came to commercialize. The Spanish granted them the permanent settlement of Binondo in 1594 in an effort to keep the Chinese  quartered in one place and out of the mainstream society in Intramuros. The result was that society mainly streamed into the area to do business, revel  in its exoticism and enjoy the food.

High finance and fashionable cuisine have since moved to Makati. But still in Binondo are small eateries serving surprisingly delightful gems of gastronomy at surprisingly delightful prices. Soupdumplings, roast meats, hand-made noodles — pricey items in hip foodie hangouts — could be had in some hole in the wall with just five tables, specializing in any one of the above and more. Hand-crafted is another buzzword for the up-market crowd. In these little restaurants,  waiters doubling as kitchen help expertly crimp dough around spoonfuls of filling at a vacant table while in the half-open kitchen, the cook painstakingly pricks away at a cut of pork.

Lamien, hand-pulled noodles, has been around since the Ming Dynasty. A dough made of flour, water and salt is kneaded until the mass is springy and elastic. This is then rolled into a cylinder and workable pieces are cut off it. Each piece is stretched to about a meter; the ends are gathered together in one hand while the other hand is inserted in the bottom of the loop to prevent the two strands from sticking. The whole process is repeated five times, sometimes with twirling and beating of the dough on a table. One fat strand turns into 32 fine noodles. It’s deceptively simple until one realizes the rather large difference in technique between pulling noodles and pulling them apart.

The premium placed on hand-crafted noodles is not just for advertising. Chefs love using the noodles because they are smooth and elastic, soft but chewy.  Lamien absorbs more flavor without getting mushy and makes an adaptable base for culinary flights of fancy.

But the noodles in their traditional form is a staple low-cost item in restaurants and homes throughout China and in Chinatowns around the world. Sandwiched  between a dental clinic and a padlocked door on San Fernando Street is Lan Zhou La Mien. Here, Dennis, the noodle-maker does his tai chi maneuvers as orders come in. He’s quick, and in a few minutes the smell of stir-frying fills the narrow room. With seafood or a combination of meat and vegetables, the noodles  embrace the flavors of the topping. In a bowl of steaming soup with sautéed beef brisket or tito (a mix of innards), they soak up both the sauté sauce and the broth. Savor the freshly hand-crafted noodles and remember its centuries-old provenance. Although if one forgets it, eating lamein is a bit of history worth being  doomed to repeat.

Lan Zhou La Mien
499 San Fernando St.
Binondo, Manila
(+63 2) 247 3167

Zen and Pho

Zen. A simple word whose meaning nobody can quite pin down. Pho. Another simple word whose pronunciation is equally bewildering. But unlike zen, pho is not a
metaphysical concept. It’s there in the bowl: thick translucent noodles, slices of meat, finely chopped cilantro and green scallions floating in the shimmering clear broth. But is it real or just an illusion, a trick of a mind craving pho? For, alas, not all Vietnamese noodle soups are genuinely pho.

Sometime in the early 20th century, the Vietnamese around Hanoi came up with pho bac. (beef pho). While no one has discovered any factual details as to its  origin, the sources all agree that the French had something to do with it. Beef is a late addition to Vietnamese cuisine, but a main one in both pot a feu and pho  bac. Pronouncing feu (fire) with a Vietnamese accent may have produced the word pho. Pho bac spread southward when the country split in two. People fleeing the communist North introduced it to the democratic South. Chicken entered the broth sometime during this flux and out of the turmoil came the classic pho—pho bo (beef) and pho ga (chicken). These are the authentic pho, pho-real.

Cooking pho is a laid-back experience. Par-boiled bones, charred onion, and ginger are gently simmered for hours with star anise, a cinnamon stick, and a few  cloves. Occasional skimming keeps the broth clear. Sometime during this procedure, the chicken or beef is dipped into the pot just long enough to cook then  taken out to cool. And sometime after that, noodles, meat, and herbs (chopped onions, cilantro, scallions) are assembled in bowls. Whenever the time comes to  eat, the steaming broth is poured into the bowls and served.

Zao, located at Shangri-La Plaza, is a cut above the pho chain restaurants proliferating in the Metro. Red lamps are tempered by a French bistro style interior that instantly says “Indochine!” Zao offers many varieties of pho, but purists will have no cause to complain about their classic pho bo and pho ga. Each order is  accompanied by a garnish plate: mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, spearmint and cilantro leaves, red chillies, lemon wedges — ingredients that intensify the fresh, light taste of pho. Try the broth before adding more condiments, for a good pho rarely needs more than a dash of fish sauce.

Over the century since Vietnam was unified, through world war, revolution, civil war, and an uneasy peace, its people have survived knowing all these are  illusions of the physical world. Unfazed by the turmoil of their history, the Vietnamese have kept the home fires burning. And have cooked pho over them. To eat  pho is to know tranquility. It’s so zen.

5th Floor, Shangri-La Plaza East Wing
Ortigas Centre, Mandaluyong City
(+63 2) 924 0785

Your Friendly Neighborhood Mamihan

A bunch of prehistoric cavemen are relaxing around a bonfire. While picking over bones, they discuss where the choicest woolly mammoths could be had and who cooks them best. After the next hunt, an enterprising individual with a particularly good hand at roasting offers to do the cooking chores. Offer accepted, he  gets a reputation as the guy with good eats. He goes on to set up a kitchen in his own cave where he charges for portions of house-style roast served with spring
water by a warm fire. Pretty soon, everyone is stopping by for a bite, a drink, and the local gossip — good food in good company.

And so down through the evolutionary ages and places, this scenario repeats itself. Metro Manila is no exception. Despite the proliferation of franchised eateries, every neighborhood has its favorite mom-and-pop operation. The menu is usually what mom or pop cook best but inevitably, there is mami.

Mami is Mr. Ma Mon Luk’s prototype noodle soup created for his restaurant in the golden age of the panciteria. A wonderful fusion of Chinese and Filipino food,  decor, and ambiance, the panciteria is where Filipinos used to go to eat Chinese food that would never have been found in China. Many of these eateries have  gone the way of woolly mammoths. But Charlie Wanton Special is a happy and contented anachronism in the wildly competitive noodle house market.

The restaurant started in the mid-50s as a small mami shop in Santa Cruz, then transferred to the front room of a house in Mandaluyong. It served the area’s residents and the students from nearby Jose Rizal College. The college is now a university but Charlie’s, as it is affectionately called, is in the same front room. Its clientele has broadened by word of mouth and internet blogs to include foodies, celebrities, and descendants of their original patrons.

Chicken mami and beef wanton are the classics, noodles made in the back room while cooking goes on in front. A heaping mass of noodles, meat, and vegetables takes up most of the bowl, so each order comes with an extra bowl of soup to ensure consistent slurpiness. No Hong Kong culinary styling or trendy interiors here, just good down-to-earth food in archetypal panciteria setting. Which is why everybody goes to Charlie’s: good food in good company.

Charlie Wanton Special
265 Haig Street, Daang Bakal,
Mandaluyong City
(+63 2) 718-1880