Saturday, March 2, 2019

Walking with Bukas Quiapo Tours - Food and Faith in Quiapo

Word association -- quick, what do you think of when I say "Quiapo"?
Traffic. The Black Nazarene. Crowds. Traffic. More crowds.
Ask me about Quiapo and if I look back to my childhood years, I would probably say ...
Sunday mass, halo halo and palengke.
In the 60s, Quiapo was relaxed, uncluttered and one of the prime districts of Manila.
People came to pray, to eat and to shop.

The last time I was in Quiapo was perhaps 2 decades ago, most probably for basket shopping with my mother at the "Ils de Tuls" (ilalim ng tulay).  A couple of months ago, I found myself crossing  a relatively traffic free Quezon Boulevard -- headed for a full morning of what would be a rediscovery  of the Quiapo that I knew and a first time introduction to the one that I had never met.

I had stumbled upon a new, non-profit tour company called Bukas Quiapo tours.  Run by the Foundation for the Conservation of the San Sebastian Basilica, they conduct walking tours of Quiapo.  Tours are led by Quiapenses as the locals are called -- born and bred in Quiapo they 
know the history and the minutiae of daily life in this chaotic but fascinating part of Manila.
Our guide for the day Dennis met our group in historic Plaza Miranda, right across the church. 

After the short orientation, we posed  for what would be the first of a number of group photos.  Flanking us on each end are our local tour guides, Dennis and Annabel.  They were excellent and hospitable hosts, proud of and very much knowledgeable about the place that they both call home.

The first stop of our tour was Quiapo Church more popularly called the Minor Basilica of the 
Black Nazarene.  A less popular fact is that the parish itself is named after St. John the Baptist.
 If you go outside, you  will find his large bronze statue right by a side gate. 

Just outside the church yard are the candle vendors,  a familiar fixture not just in Quiapo but in many church grounds all over the country.   The candles sold around Quiapo church come in vivid hues, colour coded for whatever petition you may have.
Notice the black candles -- these are for "praying" for your enemies. 
You need not even bring your candles inside the church, the vendor will light them for you, right in his stall as a votive offering for your prayer intentions.  

From the church, we walked through the short stretch of Villalobos teeming with sidewalk vendors selling all sorts of merchandise -- from fresh vegetables to fruits to kitchen utensils, Hello Kitty bags, bedsheets, towels and whatever else you would need or want.  Villalobos is the working man's shopping center.   The  prices are  lower than what you would normally pay inside the market. 

Next stop was a few hundred meters away at that bastion of porcine hammi-ness, Excelente Ham.  I can attest to Excelente's excellent-ness as I grew up feasting on their salty-savoury delights.
Christmas noche buena was considered incomplete without a leg of jamon de funda, a whole leg of salted cured ham, boiled, bathed and baked with pineapple juice and brown sugar.
My father would not think buying any other ham than Excelente, nothing else passed his exacting standards.

Excelente Ham has been in the same spot in Quiapo since pre-war days.  The gracious owners,
daughters of the original founder gave us a brief history of their famous product.  Excelente Ham is not sold in any supermarket, mall or any other branch in the city.  There is only one place to get it -- here at their one and only store.  My father would have approved.

A few doors away is Vienna Bakery, also one of my father's suki in Quiapo.  
He always bought their bonete -- a tall, spherical shaped bun with a small cap on top, hence the name.  I was disappointed that they had run out of bonete that morning and my father must have felt the same way ... somehow, I could just see him walking around looking for his favourite bread.
Vienna now also sells fresh cooked hopia with traditional monggo or trendier ube filling.  
However, I too have my own Quiapo traditions and my favorite hopia comes not from Vienna but from a small shop in Villalobos called Master Hopia.

While it is now named Carlos Palanca St.,  people of a "certain age" like myself still call it Echague.  Along this street is Manila's oldest, still existing palengke -- Quinta Market.  Built in the late 1800s, Quinta was "the" central market of the city,  where the rich families of Quiapo would shop. 
Later on, it became much more "democratised" and people from all walks of life (like my father and myself) would come to Quinta to shop. 

I almost did not recognise Quinta -- gone was the crowded, messy palengke and in its place was a clean, modern,  totally sanitised and generic looking mall!  
I sort of missed the old girl --  she was quite rundown and rumpled but she had a charm and character all her own.

Well surprise surprise!  Quinta's nip and tuck apparently was only limited to her face -- we exited to the side and found this familiar topsy turvy scene -- vendors and produce spilling out and taking over the side street.  This is what a Pinoy palengke is all about -- disorderly, disorganised, in complete disarray ... but lively, friendly and fun. 

Quinta sits right by the edge of the Pasig River and at the back of the market, you get a
good view of Quezon Bridge with its clean, art deco lines.  We were unexpectedly pleased to see green not grey or murky water.  The Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission must be doing its job quite well.

One of my fondest memories of Quinta Market would be the merienda that my father and I
(or sometimes, my mother and I) would indulge in after shopping and before taking the jeepney
back home  to Malabon.
Carinderia stalls lined one area of the market and my father always knew where the best halo halo was or the tastiest pansit.  Today, the food stalls have been transferred outside of the main market and into a food court called Lutong Maynila.  

This is Aling Dada of Jolli Dada fame.  She has been a mainstay at the market since the 1970s and her pansit palabok must be seen (and eaten) to be believed.  While we did not have the time to try it, 
I assure you it is a favourite among market goers for its prodigiously sized servings and generous toppings -- the coup de grace of which is a handful of decadently deadly chicharon bulaklak.

I had to tear myself away from Aling Dada and her pansit.  We crossed underneath the bridge to a place I had never been to before.   A large arch proclaims the entrance to Muslim Town -- an area
of Quiapo with a predominantly Muslim population.
If I may be completely honest, I had a lot of trepidation about Muslim Town -- I had heard so many negative things about the place and how it was not that safe to wander around. 

Our local guide Annabel introduced us to Hadji Ali Alawi who would be our guide for this section of the tour.  Mr Alawi is also the Muslim Coordinator for the Quiapo Inter-faith Council of Leaders ,
a civic group tasked with improving and strengthening relationships between Christians and Muslims in the area. 

As we walked through a mini talipapa,  Mr. Alawi pointed out the various produce and ingredients  used in Maranao cooking.  He said that majority of the Muslims living in Manila are Maranao, perhaps about 85%.  
I noticed the familiar bunches  of green and white scallions called sakurab which is a staple in my favourite Maranao side dish -- palapa.

And sure enough, just a few steps away, someone was cooking palapa in a giant wok.
Palapa is a spicy condiment made with chopped sakurab, lots of ginger and as much sili as
you wish.  It is used as an ingredient, a side dish or sauce and can be found on every Maranao's
table -- no matter how grand or humble it is.  
Palapa is prepared two ways -- raw,  just pound and mix all the ingredients together or cooked, blended with shredded  toasted coconut bits.  I prefer the raw version and use it as a side dish.
It adds a lot of oomph to the most ordinary fried dishes.  You can also use palapa as an ingredient -- add it to adobong manok sa dilaw for a spicy kick.

While our group did not have special permission to go inside the Golden Mosque, the largest
mosque in Metro Manila,  Mr Alawi did stop at the entrance and to allow us a chance to peer in.
The mosque was built in  1976 and one of its most notable features is its beautiful golden dome.
I would have wanted to go in and visit but while it is allowed and not discouraged, one has to secure
permission ahead of time.

This row of old bahay na bato must have looked so elegant and imposing in their heyday.
Now however, they are in sad need of repair.  Despite their nearly decrepit facade you can find traces of their former glory -- in the eaves with their graceful carvings and the windows and barandillas that decorate the second floor.  

Muslim Town covers a warren of streets.  As we walked through, Mr Alawi pointed out the various stores selling clothes, dry goods, groceries -- it was just like any section of Manila.  We also discussed how he had made it his goal to try and show that Muslims and Christians should and do get along -- allaying whatever fears and negative connotations people like me might have.
There are  a number of halal restaurants serving  delicious and authentic Maranao food. For many transplants, this must be a home away from home.
Mr Alawi promised that he would take us to the best and most famous eating place in the area --
June-Nairah Halal food is located at a prime corner of busy Globo de Oro street.

This young boy gamely posed beside June-Nairah's halal delights -- stacked one on top of the other in this crowded escaparate.  He pointed to the various dishes -- beef rendang, chicken piaparan, omelette, spicy shrimp, etc etc.  Everything looked different and yet somehow quite familiar.  

June-Nairah's was just a coffee stop -- but not just any coffee but a cup of strong, distinctly flavoured Maranao coffee.

The coffee came with a  mini kapihan (discussion).  The Christian coordinator from the Quiapo Inter-Faith council gave a short talk on the activities and programs designed to create harmony and cooperation among Christians and Muslims living in Quiapo.

Another special guest was this lady who gave us a short talk on the modern Filipina Muslim and 
her many roles in the community.  She followed up her talk by encouraging us to ask questions -- 
it helped erase some of the misconceptions and yes even biases that most of us probably had.

Post-kapihan and post-coffee photo with the heads of the Inter-faith Council, Mr. Alawi along with  Michael from Quiapo church.  The young lady beside Mr Alawi is the daughter of Madam Nairah our host and the owner of the restaurant.

Thank you for the sincere and gracious hospitality Madam Nairah!  I just could not resist taking home some of her beef rendang and palapa ... so delicious!  Food truly is the great equalizer
among all peoples -- no matter what faith or creed. May we all come to a better understanding of each other through the appreciation of our different cultures and cuisines.