Gourmet and gourmand tours of Manila normally focus on Divisoria, Chinatown, Sta. Cruz, and the Malate-Ermita area. Very often overlooked is the Quiapo district, which is more often associated with religious rites centering on the miraculous image of the Black Nazarene. Because of this misconception, the food finds on the streets around Quiapo Church and Plaza Miranda remain largely undiscovered.
Herbs to cook, cure, and plant – When Thai food became a hit in Manila, cooks found it nearly impossible to find the herbs called for in the original recipes. Very few knew that those herbs are grown in the Philippines and sold largely for medicinal purposes alongside talismans (anting-anting) and love potions on the sidewalks around Quiapo Church. One just has to know what they are called in Tagalog.
Holy basil is called sulasi. It is widely used in Mindanao dishes. The herb is sold fresh and ready to cook or plant. Knobs of red ginger or galangal, known to vendors as langkawas, are easy to grow using root pieces sold in Quiapo. Also waiting for plantitas are mature stems of oregano, rosemary (romero), mint (herba Buena), and roots of turmeric (luyang dilaw).
The herb vendors generously share tips on using the herbs to cure various ailments.
For genuine Ilocanos – Hard-to-find Ilocano vegetable line on one side of R. Hidalgo Street, once famous for camera repair shops in the days of film photography. Farmers and vendors from Regions 1 and 2 lovingly tend to papait greens still complete with roots and soil, worm-like flowers of locoton or imbaba-o, white katuray flowers, unopened kalabasa blooms, long green peppers with no heat, red multiplier onions, and pumpkin-shaped heirloom tomatoes.
To complete the list of authentic ingredients, the place also sells fish bagoong to use in dips and to add to dinengdeng.
Fish pasalubong – Ready-to-cook fish from villages around Laguna de Bay are sold from huge bamboo baskets right where Villalobos Street begins on Plaza Miranda. Baby daing na bangus are sold by the tumpok, as low as four pieces for ₱50. They fry so crispily, bones and all.
Laguna Danggit – Tilapia multiply so fast that millions of tilapia fry used to be considered pests, eating all the food intended for bangus. Then someone dried the small fish just like the famous danggit of Cebu, and the rest is history. A new value-added product was born and has become a big hit.
Pinangat or sinaing? – Very popular for home consumption and as gifts are pinangat na tulingan brought in every afternoon from the seaside towns of Batangas. Also called sinaing, the fish are layered with pork fat and dried kamias fruit in a large palayok (clay pot) for several hours until the fish bones become tender and every drop of fish oil oozes out of the fish.
The sinaing, often wrapped in banana leaves, last several days without refrigeration, longer if leftovers are fried or cooked with gata (coconut milk). Flaked, the meat could even be mixed with mayonnaise and chopped onions or pickles to make sandwiches and salads.
Also called sinaing, the fish are layered with pork fat and dried kamias fruit in a large palayok (clay pot) for several hours until the fish bones become tender and every drop of fish oil oozes out of the fish.
Bighead shrimp – Freshwater shrimp abound in Laguna Lake, but are ignored by fishermen because they have little commercial value, being good only in okoy or added to vegetable dishes.
An enterprising housewife cooks the shrimp, also called tagunton, in plenty of coconut milk and chili peppers until oily and almost dry. The end product, now sold by the glass, is popular for pulutan and as viand.
More surprises await the adventurous. Just keep your eyes, and mind, open.