Manila’s Missing Flavor

By James Jimenez

I’ve often noted to foreign friends coming to the Philippines that they would have an easier time finding a restaurant in Manila that specialized in their home country’s authentic cuisine, than one that served true-blue Filipino food. One particularly disappointing example of a dish that seems to be very nearly extinct in Manila’s chaotic sea of fusion and commercialization is La Paz batchoy. Far and away the most loved comfort food for Ilonggos, this hearty noodle soup with its rich broth, tender lashings of meat, and flavorful garnish is now becoming a rarity in its authentic form.

If you know, you know

La Paz batchoy is not just any ordinary soup, although the uninitiated often mistake it for the commonplace noodle house mami. Others inexplicably even claim to confuse it with batchoy tagalog which is made from pig’s blood and uses miswa noodles. These other noodle soups look nothing La Paz batchoy, they smell nothing like it, and taste as different from it as a mango from an okra.

Authentic La Paz batchoy uses fresh egg noodles called miki, served in a savory pork broth that has been left to simmer for hours on end. The broth is so rich that it has consistently invited comparison – in both richness and flavor – to authentic Japanese ramen broth. To that basic noodles-and-broth mix is added stips of pork meat, beef loin, pig intestines and liver, along with crushed cracklings – chicharones – and toasted garlic. In Iloilo, where the dish is named after the district of its origin – La Paz this has been the recipe handed down through the generations, virtually unchanged, ever since it burst onto the culinary landscape in the 1930s.

This same recipe was eventually brought over to Manila I don’t know exactly when. I’m no food historian, but I do remember two major Iloilo batchoy restaurants were able to establish and maintain restaurants in Manila, up to at least the 2000s: Deco’s and Ted’s. In the outer orbit of these two restaurants were many others that served a dish they called ‘batchoy’ but were really just their respective interpretations of the original – often attempts at fusion. I call it “Manila-fication” – that subtle and not always successful alteration of a regional dish to “tame” its flavors for the Manila palate. Some variations were simple enough, like the fresh egg that was added to the soup upon serving being replaced a with hard-boiled egg for some reason. Others were attempts at reinvention – in at least one instance, shrimp were added as a topping. None of these variations made the dish inedible, of course, but the drifting away from the original flavors of La Paz batchoy was soon very noticeable to those who’d tried the original.

Better than nothing

Eventually, even the restaurants that started out with authentic batchoy were serving Manila-fied versions, or closing shop entirely. Now, finding a truly authentic batchoy restaurant in Manila is as challenging as searching for a needle in a haystack. There are a handful of places that still serve a good-enough version, but in most of those places where you can find batchoy on the menu, what actually arrives at your table will usually be sorely disappointing. Instead of the robust flavors and hearty textures of authentic batchoy, what is served is a watered-down version, lacking the rich complexity of the original. To me, this begs the question: in a city as diverse and dynamic as Manila, where cuisine from nearly every imaginable corner of the world can be found, why is it practically impossible to find authentic batchoy?

Some would blame the pervasive influence of commercialization, where shortcuts are taken in the pursuit of profit. After all, authenticity often does take a backseat to mass production, and the essence of batchoy could very easily be lost in the process. Or maybe it’s a matter of tastes evolving as palates gravitate towards more modern, fusion-y interpretations of Filipino cuisine. I disagree of course, preferring original flavors, but de gustibus and all that. And yet others point out that maybe it’s a simple matter of marketing and economics – not enough mainstream customers know about La Paz batchoy (except as a flavor of instant noodles, I guess) for there to be any demand which would justify investing in an actual batchoyan in Manila.

Whatever the reason, I rage at the implication that all anyone can do is to give in and simply accept what’s available because it’s better than nothing. That’s almost like saying you’re going to boycott the elections because you can’t find a candidate that you think is worth supporting.

No Less Important

This is where I come clean. This isn’t just about batchoy, although my griping is genuine. This article is, as you’ve probably guessed, also an allegory for politics. And in the quest for finding authentic La Paz batchoy in Manila as in politics, we are not helpless.

We can combat commercialization by selectively patronizing those establishments that have refused to succumb to the siren’s call of bigger profit margins. Let us ‘train’ restaurants to understand that their quest for greater earnings cannot be more important than the quality of what we pay them for. In much the same way that we can reject politicians that serve us clownish antics in their effort to distract us from their lack of ability or questionable backgrounds. Let us ‘educate’ them so that they realize they will get nowhere with their buffoonery.

Let us also make our preference for competence in government service a major talking point, even if people around you are increasingly becoming content with using factions, fame or family names as a criteria of choosing who to vote for. Parang batchoy lang yan. Iba man ang panlasa mo, we can still agree that batchoy should not taste like bulalo, no matter which chef cooks it.

And we can advocate for greater awareness and appreciation of Filipino cuisine, both here and abroad. Tell people how to distinguish between an excellent bowl of batchoy and a terrible one, and how not to be afraid to say so if it is so. If we can do this in choosing who to vote for, there is absolutely no reason why we can’t do it for food.

A good bowl of La Paz batchoy after all, is no less important than politics.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here