Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Binondo is an exciting place to be in this time of the year. As the world’s oldest Chinatown, the district became a hub of business and commerce for the Filipino-Chinese community, and now it houses hundreds of establishments — many of which have been around for decades.
Come Chinese New Year, the district comes to life, with these shops and restaurants catering to visitors looking for symbols of luck for the coming year. Here, foodies will be able to source the best (and probably some of the most affordable) goodies that are considered “lucky” when consumed during the lunar new year.
In time for Chinese New Year, we put together a short list of the lucky foods you’ll be able to find in Binondo, and the best places to get them.
Dumplings: Dong Bei
In the northern region of China, dumplings play a part in Chinese New Year celebrations — tradition calls for families to make dumplings on the day itself and eat their creations come midnight.
Some legends say that dumplings are considered lucky because they resemble Chinese silver ingots, which are shaped like boats. It is believed that eating a lot of dumplings will bring money in the New Year. In some households, a coin is hidden inside one dumpling. Whoever gets the coin is said to have a prosperous year ahead.
In Binondo, there’s only one place that most residents and foodies will recommend when it comes to the best dumplings: Dong Bei, a modest shop located in Yuchengco St. where hundreds of dumplings are made by hand at the storefront each day. There is usually a line outside the restaurant, partly because the space is small, but mostly because their dumplings — especially the kuchay and pork ones — are very much in demand.
Dong Bei Dumplings is located at 642 Yuchengco St.
Noodles: Masuki & Lan Zhou La Mien
It’s common knowledge that Chinese-Filipinos introduced noodles into local cuisine, along with their belief that eating noodles, especially on your birthday, grants you long life. This is likely why pancit and its many variations is such a staple at Filipino parties and celebrations.
For those on the hunt for a comforting meal of noodles and soup, Masuki, a mami house on Benavidez St., has a menu consisting solely of different types of mami. The eatery has been around for decades — it is, in fact, the oldest mami restaurant in the area — and it’s remained more or less the same ever since. They still use the same hearty recipe from when they opened in the ‘30s, and their noodles are still made fresh daily using old school machines that they have at the restaurant.
Also along Benavidez St. is another noodle house that serves la mien, or hand-pulled noodles, called Lan Zhou La Mien. The name is derived from a city in Northwest China where the noodles are a staple dish. Just like in Masuki, their noodles are made on the spot.
Masuki is located at 931 Benavidez St. Lan Zhou La Mien is located at 818 Benavidez St.
Tikoy, prosperity cake, sticky rice balls, and other snacks: Ongpin St. & Benavidez St.
There are tons of bakeries peppered across Chinatown that serve all sorts of snacks that are meant to be eaten on or days after Chinese New Year, from tikoy to tang yuan (sticky rice balls) to prosperity cake or fa gao.
Tikoy, or nian gao, is perhaps the Chinese New Year snack that most Filipinos are familiar with. Some believe that the glutinous rice cake is considered good luck because “nian gao” sounds like the term “higher year.”
Eng Bee Tin is arguably the most well-known place to get tikoy and they carry different flavors, like green tea, ube, pandan, butterscotch, and even strawberry. Eng Bee Tin has also made it a tradition of sorts to display a giant tikoy in their store in Ongpin St. every year. This year, it’s a giant strawberry tikoy with the face of a pig.
Fa gao is a cake made of rice flour that is steamed so that the top splits open or “smiles.” Its texture is equal parts spongy and a little bit gummy, kind of like puto but sweeter. Fa gao is eaten during Chinese New Year because some believe that it brings good luck, mainly because “fa” is the word for both “leavened” and “prosperity.”
Salazar Bakery, which has been around since 1947, is a good place to find fa gao. Their shop is located in Ongpin St. as well, but they have other branches around Metro Manila. Beware though, because their Binondo shop gets pretty busy around this time. To avoid the crowd, head further down the road to find a little general merchandise store called Charme that sells prosperity cake on a table outside.
Parallel to Ongpin St. is Benavidez, where one will find a small bakery called Wan Kee. Here, you’ll find more tikoy, pastries, and sticky rice balls or tang yuan. The last one is eaten by some during family reunions — Chinese New Year being one of the biggest of them all — as a symbol of unity and togetherness.
Eng Bee Tin is located at 650 Ongpin St. Salazar Bakery is located at 783 Ongpin St. Wan Kee is located at 828 Benavidez St.
Oranges, tangerines, and other round fruit: Everywhere
Another belief some Filipinos have adapted from the Chinese is the preparation of round fruits — 12 in particular — on New Year’s Eve. The rationale here is that the round shape represents coins, and the number 12 symbolizes each month of the year.
But oranges and tangerines hold a special significance for, according to legend, it resembles the sun, symbolizing happiness and positivity. That is why you won’t just see dozens of oranges being sold in fruit stands all across Binondo, you’ll also find potted mandarin orange trees being sold on the sidewalks and in front of stores specializing in lucky trinkets, charms, and lanterns.