Eating Paella in Chinatown

Tag: los ambos mundos restaurant, wah sun,  chinatown manila, binondo

A recent visit to the house of Don Guillermo Gómez Rivera  inspired me to take another look at the Chinatown I thought I already knew. There was a time, according to Gómez, that Spanish was widely used in the area. That the language was so prevalent in Manila that even the purest of Chinese learned to speak it!

This story didn’t surprise me at all. People engage in commerce use a common language. You don’t expect Filipino and Spanish to speak Chinese. They spoke the lengua franca of their time. The Chinese learned how to count, market, and to sell in Spanish!

According to historian Pio Andrade, the prominent Chinese Filipinos of old Manila wasn’t speaking broken Spanish but fluent Spanish!

A good example of how people adapt language to do business are the people that lived around the Spanish seaports of old Ciudad de Cavite and Zamboaga  — to this day these towns speak a form of Spanish their ancestors adapted so they could transact with Spanish merchants and ship men.

By all indication, Chabacano speakers in Zamboanga are increasing. Unfortunately, the Chabacano spoken in Ermita and some other district of Manila has long been lost. Cavite city is struggling to keep their numbers up. While Ternate in Cavite is having some success through education and parents insisting that their children learn their Chabacano.

Beautiful reminders of that past many would just want us to forget.

Many scholars wonder why Intamuros never had an area for a market.

The answer was that there was no need for one. Everything was available just outside the walls. The Chinese of parian offered just about everything the people of Manila needed—from skilled labor to pancit.

The food in Parian was so well known that the first bishop of Manila couldn’t stop but mention them in his letters to the Spanish king!

There was one thing that surprised me during this recent visit — and this is that to this day there are remnants of this forgotten hispanized Chinatown. Restaurants that still carries on the tradition of serving some authentic Filipino dishes.

They call it ‘fusion’ in contemporary culinary language these days but back then it simply was the way of food preparation and eating–Filipino identity mirrored in plates and dishes.

Some of these dishes shouldn’t be called Chinese nor Spanish cuisines but Filipino. After all, Rizal insisted that pancit is ours, not an import. This is true because pancit starts from this Spanish technique called ‘guisa’ and ends up with these noodles that must have been brought here by the Chinese — this weaving of culture is what makes it very Filipino.

I don’t usually write about food culture for I know very little about it. But I do understand its historical value–after all ‘food’ is the only part of culture that outlasts all the other parts of it. People are bound to lose the way they dress and even the way they communicate through the passing of time but food, the manner it’s prepared, its ingredients, its taste, all of these stays.

This brings a whole new meaning to that popular phrase ‘you are what you eat’.

When you read a tinolang manok from some old text that would be the same tinola your mother would prepare at home. There’s this link that’s almost infrangible in Filipino cuisine. Yes, the ingredients and how it’s cooked would vary but no one could argue that it’s not the same dish.

In Chinatown, one could still enjoy a cup of thick, rich ‘la resurreccion’ chocolate from some of the restos around here. This morning drink was staple in every Manileño breakfast table. The small shop in Calle Ongpin still sells La Resurrecion Tablea’s with the traditional wrap in Spanish. They say that the tableas are still made in the area. The shop is said to had been established only in the 30’s.

The lone restaurant in Chinatown that carried on the tradition of an authentic Filipino theme is the  Ambos Mundos (‘both worlds’ in Eng.). The menu is still in Spanish and the food, yes, still Filipino. ‘Bebedas’ lists softdrinks these days but I wonder what kind of drinks they serve in the late 1800’s? as for ‘Postres’, they still have leche plan and halohalo but in between are some modern sweets. ‘Verduras’ lists torta talong, ocoy, guisadong gulay, lumpia and ensalada. Main dish features ‘paella’,and I ended picking  ‘paella manila’ as recommended. That decision did not disappoint! I was told that this particular paella is one that had been passed down from the original Gaudinez’s that started the business in 1888.

Paella Manilena, bistek tagala and one smart pig right in front of the restaurant’s entrance

Ambos Mundos was first established by the Gaudinez in what is now Palanca Street in Quiapo. It transferred to another location sometime in the 1900’s then to its present place in Florentino Torres Street, corner of Azcárraga 17 years ago.

Whenever I’m in restaurant that serves paella I see to it that I order paella. In my view, the most refined, the classiest of all Filipino dish. There was a time in our history that paella was ‘the’ rice served in fiestas. Nowadays, paella has been sidelined for the more economical spaghetti.

I also discovered that Wah Sun, the old panciteria place, and Ambos Mundos are now owned by the same family. Interesting is just like the wonderful fusion of food served in old Chinatown, a Gaudinez married into the Chinese family that owned the Wah Sun (this panciteria was  established in the mid 1900’s). I was told that you can order food in Wah Sun and have it delivered right across Ambos Mundos. Unfortunately, Wah Sun appears to have been closed and I’m not sure if they have plans to reopen it or if they’re just doing some renovation work.





2 responses to “Eating Paella in Chinatown

  • ruben s. hernando

    sorry for the typo, but my surname should read as hernando.

  • ruben s. hernandp

    When I was younger, (and that’s ancient history) I noticed that many Chinese restaurants in Manila had these signs written on the mirrored walls: Morisqueta Tostada/Mais con yelo/Monggo con yelo/Bijon Guisado/Bijon Tostado/Asado/Comida China and many more. Which means that my former Adamson professor Don Guillermo Gomez-Rivera was correct. Sad, but the Americans really succeeded in alienating us from our Spanish heritage.

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