Shirin Bhandari

“Do not expect privacy,” says Manila-based food and travel writer, Shirin Bhandari. “Manila is the most densely populated city in the world and close to 13 million people are squeezed into the metropolis.” What you can expect, according to the journalist whose work appears in Roads & Kingdoms, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, CNN and VICE, is plenty of energy, eating and a bold mix of Spanish, Chinese and American flavours. The capital – and food – of the Philippines awaits.

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Welcome To Manila

Do not expect privacy. Manila is the most densely populated city in the world and close to 13 million people are squeezed into the metropolis. Getting around won’t be easy, so plan your stay. Also, I suggest getting your own apartment for a few days. The past decade has seen a boom in the Manila real estate market with high-end condominiums covering the city skyline. Renting an apartment is cheaper than a hotel and most include a kitchen, pool and gym and most are usually connected to a large shopping centre. Unfortunately, the working class can’t afford to live in an average flat so thousands of units remain empty.

How The Locals Do Breakfast

The menu at Café Adriatico in Malate might be as old as the Dead Sea scrolls, but it is there for a reason. It’s my go-to place for a consistent and comforting Filipino breakfast. The Farmer’s Breakfast consists of fried sweet pork similar to the Chinese-style char siu, garlic fried rice, a sunny-side-up egg with a refreshing tomato and coriander salad and a banana fritter for dessert. It also comes with a free cup of strong barako coffee. The Philippine breakfast known as silog has three components: a salty, cured meat, fried rice and a fried egg. Silog is the portmanteau of the words sinangag (fried rice) and itlog (egg). Not everyone can function on such a high-carb, high-protein, oil-infused breakfast, but if you’ve lived here long enough it’s a great, quick, go-to meal any time of day.

Manila’s Oldest Chinatown

During the week, a trip to the world’s oldest Chinatown in the neighbourhood of Binondo is a must. Binondo was established in 1594 by Spanish colonisers to keep the Chinese immigrants in check. I walk from the old church of Quiapo, into the markets of Raon, Divisoria, Santa Cruz and finally Ongpin Street into Chinatown. It is challenging to go through the busy alleys filled with vendors selling their wares. Bring your own shopping bag, because you’ll find yourself picking up dirt cheap fruit and garments along the way. The fresh Chinese spring rolls of New Eastern Garden Restaurant and the Shanghai-style fried siopao or pork bun is a must-try, served fast, fresh and cheap. Pick up a Chinatown map so you won’t get lost scouring the streets for a blend of tasty Filipino-Chinese staples.

Inside the world’s oldest Chinatown, indulge on the fresh Chinese spring rolls of New Eastern Garden on Ongpin Street in Binondo, Manila. Photography: Courtesy of Shirin Bhandari

The Best Market In Manila

The Farmers’ Market in Cubao is hands-down the best market in the whole metropolis. Even chefs would agree. Bustling with people day and night, it offers fresh vegetables sourced from the north and amazing seafood from the south of the Philippines. The Dampa is a section inside the market which allows food to be freshly cooked on the spot. Hand them a kilo of black tiger prawns and they can stir-fry it with butter, garlic and fresh chilli. Do not underestimate the Philippine one-pot wonder, sinigang. The northern Tagalog soup is tamarind-based and a more refined version of the swampy tom yum of Thailand.  The sour and savoury soup is addictive and can be made at the Dampa Cubao. A choice of fish, shrimp or pork and a mixture of local vegetables like water spinach, okra, string beans and radish can be thrown into the soup. Some even substitute tamarind with miso, watermelon or fresh guavas. To be safe, make sure to bring a local.

The Working Class Lunch  

Fried or grilled chicken is popular all over the country, from fast-food joints like Jollibee to home-style barbecue chicken at The Aristocrat. But there is only one master: the underrated chicken inasal of Aida’s Chicken. Inasal is chicken marinated in a mixture of calamansi lime, soy, vinegar, garlic and annatto, and grilled over hot coals. It originated from the Negros region in the Visayas, south of the Philippines. Aida’s main branch is in Bacolod but Manila has been blessed with one stall inside Makati Cinema Square. The owner, Toto Tarrosa, is a friend and an entertaining character to talk to about Filipino food. His family has been making the tender and tasty chicken for over 40 years. Choose from pecho (breast), paa (leg) or pakpak (wings). It is served with a cup of rice. The bottle of red oil on the table to sprinkle on your rice is garlic-infused. The chicken is ideally dipped in sinamak: local palm vinegar with bird’s eye chilli, ginger and garlic. Order the kansi, beef shank with bone marrow and green jackfruit. It is stewed in a sour broth made from batwan, an indigenous fruit from the islands. The colourful walls and paintings in Toto’s restaurant reflect his love of art. If you have the afternoon free, ask to see his epic book collection next door.

The over 40 year old recipe of Aida’s grilled chicken first originated in the Visayan island of Bacolod in the Philippines. The sole branch in Manila is definitely worth the trip. Photography: Courtesy of Shirin Bhandari

The National Dish (That Differs From Island To Island)

Adobo is the national dish. This protein-based dish uses meat, seafood or vegetables and is braised in vinegar. Depending on the tide, the Philippines is home to more than 7,100 islands and each island offers a different recipe. Meat can be broiled or even fried in the process. Some use more garlic than others. Some add coconut milk to the stew with bird’s eye chilli for an extra kick.  Whichever recipe one chooses, it will always be a source of comfort, great joy or contention.

A Neighbourhood-By-Neighbourhood Guide To Dinner

As the sun sets in Manila, traffic will be the biggest dilemma in this megacity, so dining is relative to where you are. If you find yourself stuck in a mall, which is normal in Manila, find the nearest Crisostomo or Manam. In Makati, head to MilkyWay Cafe for traditional Filipino comfort food. The kare-kare or oxtail in peanut sauce here is award-winning.  Hop to Poblacion for trendy hipster-friendly bars and local craft beers. If you’d like to splurge, book a reservation at the Toyo Eatery at Karrivin Plaza and make time for a gallery visit at the Drawing Room and its design concept store Aphro next door. The Toyo Eatery is a creative take on Filipino food that steers away from the traditional family-style servings. The portions are small and pricy but presented with care and attention to detail. There are tasting menus to choose from. It is the brainchild of Chef Jordy Navarra – formerly of Black Sheep, another go-to spot in Makati for Filipino-Chinese food.

Home-Style Filipino Cooking

On the grittier side of town where I lived for close to a decade, is Bistro Remedios in Malate. It is right across Café Adriatico, my favourite breakfast spot I mentioned earlier. Both Bistro Remedios and Café Adriatico are owned by the late Larry Cruz, a pioneer in the Filipino restaurant scene. The homey cooking is unpretentious and tasty, like something your grandmother would make for you on a Sunday. Order the refreshing salad of pako at itlog na maalat (young rainforest fern with tomato and salted duck egg) or the sinuam na mais (corn soup with shrimp and chilli leaves).  Do not leave without a taste of the Knockout Knuckles or crisp pata bawang and the steamed rice in bamboo. The heart-clogging whole leg of pork is deep-fried with garlic and chilli. It is cited by well-known food writer Madhur Jaffrey as the best pork knuckle dish she has tasted in the Philippines. Cleanse that palate with a refreshing halo-halo which literally means “mixed together”. Shaved ice is topped with candied fruit, sugar beans, tapioca, jelly, evaporated milk or purple taro ice cream. The idea is to mix everything up into an unrecognizable slush before eating. If you’d like to dine alfresco the same road on Remedios holds a number of grills serving cheap local barbecue and beer: Sylivia’s Diner and Super Six won’t let you down.

Cleanse that palate and cool down from the Manila heat- with a refreshing Halo-Halo which literally means “mixed together”.
Photography: Courtesy of Shirin Bhandari

Where To Drink In Manila

For after-dinner drinks, pop into the Tap Room inside the grand Manila Hotel that was built in 1909. The lobby alone is worth the trip. End the night with late-night drinks at the community bar, The Oarhouse Pub of Manila. It is a melting pot of writers, artists, photographers and journalists. It is owned by Ben Razon, a friend from the famous Razon family of Pampanga. For midnight munchies, ask for the sisig which also originated in Pampanga: finely chopped pigs’ head served on sizzling platter with chilli and onions. De-clog with the rocket fuel Super Sub, a fiery concoction only found in Malate. It consists of extra strong beer spiked with a local moonshine called lambanog.

Talking About Alcohol

It may be hot, but beer is cheap. The greatest legacy the Spanish left the Philippines was the introduction of beer. In 1890, a company of Spaniards opened the first brewery in South-east Asia, in Manila. The San Miguel factory created various types of beer and has remained the top-selling brewery in the country to this day. 60 US cents buys you a bottle. The Spanish’s second-best contribution is rum. It was introduced to the Philippines in the 19th century and the abundance of sugar cane here makes it an ideal place to produce the amber spirit. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of Tanduay, Old Captain and the higher end Don Papa: they make great gifts.

Guide last updated March 2020

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here.

Shirin Bhandari

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