Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Food for Thought: Taking a Deeper and Bigger Bite into the Local Food Culture with Quiapo A La Carte, Food Culture in Transit

They say, the best way to know a city or even a country is understanding and experiencing their food. Food, after all has a direct connection with the past evolving in a dynamic and organic manner. In a unique event, a slice and bite of Quiapo's local food culture unveils a colorful layer in our rich culinary heritage and diversity...

The Mama Sita Foundation recently hosted a virtual dinner celebrating Quiapo's food culture organized by students of the Introduction of Cultural Heritage Class by Dr. Fernando Zialcita of ADMU with local dishes curated by noted author, food writer and award-winning visual artist and book designer Ige Ramos and prepared by Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco of Gourmet Gypsy Cafe. Read on for a taste of our rich culinary heritage with Quiapo A La Carte, Food Culture in Transit...

Cultural Weaves and Foodways

Consistent with the founder's passion for food and local culture, the Mama Sita Foundation aims to promote Philippine culinary heritage and agricultural sustainability with a deeper and more meaningful context through innovative initiatives like the annual Mga Kuentong Pagkain competition inspired by the countless chronicles on food compiled by Teresita "Mama Sita" Reyes (for more on the Mama Sita Foundation, see my earlier post, Mama Sita's Mga Kuwentong Pagkain and a Creative Encounter with Puerto Princesa Cuisine at Alab from six years ago). The legacy of the founder and her well-loved brand endures bannered by the unique and diverse flavors that define our rich culinary heritage and traditions. This advocacy for tradition continues by building foodways connecting communities around the world and linking farmers and producers with sustainable practices.  

The virtual dinner also launched the start of comprehensive interdisciplinary studies for the conservation of Quiapo's culture dubbed Buhay Quiapo by Bakas Pilipinas in collaboration with the ADMU Department of Sociology and Anthropology

The informative dinner was streamed via Zoom last November 13 in keeping with the new normal, along with a curated feast in a box curated by Ige Ramos and prepared by Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco for an interactive experience. Food is a reflection of who we are and where we came from, changing and evolving over time providing clues to where we are headed. Food is an indicator of culture, and more importantly, bringing people together. Geography and history shapes local culinary traditions for its flavorful base, changing and adapting to global influences. Over time, it's this cultural transference that continues to define our heritage. Food is memories, slowly and gently simmered in a pot and brought back to life with each serving. Ige Ramos and Chef Waya Araos-Wijangco recreates the familiar flavors of Quiapo conveniently packed in a box...  

Quiapo in a Box

The packed box highlighted the novel format of Quiapo A La Carte, Food Culture in Transit allowing guests to experience flavors for a deeper and bigger bite of the colorful and rich tapestry of our local culinary heritage. Enjoying local flavors is not only a sensory feast, but "an action of ingesting local culture" as described by culinary historian Doreen Fernandez for an immersive experience.  

The Melting Pot of Quiapo

Often referred to as the Old Downtown of Manila, Quiapo was the vibrant hub of a bustling trade scene predating colonial times, infusing the district with a diversity of cultural influences. The recent selection of Quiapo as the site to explore links between the conservation of local heritage in response to climate change brings back the spotlight on the historic district. For Ige Ramos, Quiapo has always been "an interesting cultural food space where food moves together with the natural landscape, changing urban planning and most specially peoples' transitory qualities constantly moving, evolving like an organism, it is born, nurtured, lives and dies completing the cycle of life." 

Ige Ramos goes on by describing the rich culinary fabric woven with Chinese and Muslim influences beneath the "mestizo" infused cuisine where street food, halal eateries, bakeries, albularyos peddling herbs and potions and fastfood painting a vibrant palette of flavors in a constantly evolving melting pot. The "Filipinization" of traditional Chinese cuisine is evident in Quiapo with ambulant vendors selling taho, panciterieas and panaderias with their hopia and later mami, lumpia and siopao that's now part of the culinary mainstream. The popular noodle dish, pancit, is now distinctly Filipino with regional variations for a classic case of "adopt" and "adapt" adding to the diversity of the national identity. The construction of the Manila Golden Mosque back in 1972 brought in new flavors adding to the culinary landscape. Globalization, modernity and tradition weave seamlessly in Quiapo for a snapshot of our national culinary identity. 

Take A Big Bite of Quiapo's Food Culture

The nostalgic Quiapo inspired dinner began with Merienda Cena consisting of Rainbow Bread from BakeRite Bakery with savory Jamon Excelente in a Clubhouse and Hopia Selection by Kim Chong Tin takes you on a virtual tour to the streets of Quiapo. The colorful Rainbow Bread by BakeRite Bakery has been a staple for countless celebrations, while the Jamon Excelente with its classic Deboned Chinese Cooked Ham brings a festive note to the virtual dinner experience. With only one store based in its original location, the savory cooked hams of Excelente remains top-of-mind when it comes to authentic Chinese style ham with its sweet and salty notes. 

The familiar bean-filled pastries or hopia of Kim Chong Tin takes you back to countless childhood summers with each bite for dessert. Baked in a brick oven with charcoal, it's timeless and enduring traditions like this that stops time allowing us to savor authentic flavors. The Hopia Monggo, with its smoky fragrance and nutty sweetness continues to be the bestseller at Kim Chong Tin. 

It's a traditional Quiapo-inspired merienda cena with comfortingly familiar flavors from iconic names from the famed district. The sumptuous plate is also a reflection of the rich weave of influences that now make up a colorful mosaic of culinary traditions.

Another culinary icon from Quiapo, the Globe Theater-Style Lumpiang Sariwa garnished with chili, tofu and peanuts has been delighting palates for over 65 years, and is another essential component to an authentic Quiapo experience.

Made fresh filled with ubod or heart of palm delivering a subtle sweetness along with a blend of other vegetables for a flavorful burst with each bite, the fresh spring roll is completed by the thick, sweet and garlicky sauce. Just like the earlier appetizers, the fresh spring roll is a flavorful snapshot of culinary influences wrapped and served for tasty bites.

For the main courses, Ige Ramos and Chef Waya Araos-Wijangko takes a page from the exotic recipes of Maranao starting with the Beef Rendang inspired by the old trading routes connecting the islands with its Southeast Asian neighbors. Almost like a curry with its thick sauce, the Beef Rendang brings mildly sweet and spicy hints as well as a creamy finish with bold beefy notes into play with each bite.  

Silky smooth coconut cream, the sharp and fiery notes of chili for that soothing heat and the nutty notes of garlic become the canvas for this lavish southern dish. Best paired with steamed white rice, Beef Rendang brings the flavors of the deep south up north now common in the growing number of halal eateries of Quiapo. 

Maranao flavors from the deep south complete our sumptuous feast with Pastil or Pater with rice, egg, tomato and cucumber wrapped in banana leaf with Chicken Piaparan and Palapa Condiment combining for bold and hearty flavors. The aromatic fragrance of the banana leaf adds to the experience unveiling yet another colorful weave in our rich and diverse culinary tapestry. Chef Waya spins her creative flair with the steamed rice giving it a blue tint for just a touch of modernity (for more on Chef Waya's Gourmet Gypsy Cafe, see my post A Wine Launch of a Different Kind: Making the World a Better Place, One Step at a Time with Barefoot Wines on a wine launch held at her cafe).

Rice binds our regional cuisine together, and I remember Ige Ramos describing it as one of the "crops of oppression" from a previous food trip in Cavite that runs deep in the national psyche (for more on that memorable food trip hosted by Ige Ramos, see my previous series of posts on the Cavite Food and Heritage Tour with Transitions Optical at A Rebel Breakfast at Malen's on traditional breakfast specialties, Cavite's Best with Ka Julia's Kakanin on native delicacies, Traditional Cuisine and Pretty in Pink All in One Place at Calle Real and The Pink Table on a popular local restaurant and A Closer Look at the Filipino Experience in the Best Light on historic residences all from 2016).

The combination of coconut and turmeric gives the tender chicken its distinctive yellow hue, but it also adds layers of flavors to enhance its delicate notes. Pastil, Palapa and Chicken Piaparan takes your palate on a memorable culinary journey down south and to the busy streets of Quiapo with that first bite, taking you deeper into the heart of our culinary landscape with every succeeding bite. The meal packed in two separate bento boxes reflects the dichotomy of Quiapo's cultural make-up, with the halal dishes served separately. 

The food of Quiapo is just one layer in the vibrant character of the ever changing and dynamic district, painting a colorful splash of flavors from various influences that are now part of the mainstream and our identity. But Quiapo has so much more to offer like the popular and ubiquitous mami and siopao, halo-halo from the market, mantecado ice cream, black pepper chicken near the mosque as well as a whole array of Maranao, Taosug and Maguindanao cuisine served during Ramadan. 

The curated meals adequately captured the flavors of Quiapo and in a way, freezing a moment in time taking you back to the heydays of the fabled district. And in a pandemic of the new normal, it's welcome change from the usual dining experience. The Quiapo A La Carte, Food Culture in Transit was one of the more memorable experiences for the year filled with key insights into who we are while transporting you to different place and time. And that's pretty special in this new normal. 

We all experienced Quiapo in one way or another, and most of it is centered on the rich flavors of the district. Increased globalization continues its unhampered march touching even traditional districts like Quiapo in its path, while changing consumer habits and taste preferences have also changed the culinary landscape along with the transitory nature of residents. And Quiapo continues to change, but the flavors endure with names like BakeRite Bakery, Jamon Excelente, Kim Chong Tin and the emergence of southern-inspired dishes to the melting pot. Food remains an integral thread in our own journey, and Quiapo is one of many colorful chapters in a continuing story. Do you have your own story? Share it on Mga Kuwentong Pagkain by The Mama Sita Foundation, just hit up the links below...

For more on the Mama Sita Foundation and the Mga Kuwentong Pagkain competition, you can visit their website at

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