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Looking Back

19th-century Manila by way of restaurant ads

/ 04:05 AM December 18, 2019

Cable TV documentary shows on immigration, customs and quarantine procedures at US and Australian ports of entry are both educational and engaging. People who intend to overstay or violate their tourist visas are found out during routine questioning, while those who do not declare fresh fruit, including those not consumed during the flight and stashed in the passengers’ hand-carried luggage, are either threatened with a fine or ordered to throw the items in the trash. I do not carry fresh food, ivory, fake branded items, drugs, explosives, porn or “subversive” literature in my luggage, so I often go through inspection quickly.

But on recent trips to the US, I was surprised to overhear Customs and Quarantine personnel asking Filipino travelers if they had chicharon or Magic Sarap. Must be the vetsin, I thought — until I overheard a young woman telling her companions that she was only asked to leave her chicken-flavored instant noodles and allowed to take in the rest. I smiled when I saw her rearranging packs of La Paz Batchoy instant noodles in her cleared luggage, because the inspectors didn’t know these had little packets of ground chicharon for topping inside with the soup base. While instant noodles are easily available worldwide, certain flavors like batchoy, tom yum, curry or spicy Korean can be a challenge to find.

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On my first trip to Europe over 40 years ago, my father pointed out a group of American tourists lining up at McDonald’s and told me: “They came all the way here only to eat burgers.” I was too young at the time to argue that food from one’s country is one of the first things a homesick traveler will crave for abroad. On that trip, we always sought out Chinese restaurants to fulfill the craving for rice, or when available, requested it as a side dish in place of local staples like bread, potatoes or yam. Fast-food chains like McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Burger King and even Jollibee serve the familiar in an unfamiliar country. But not so in the Philippines during the late 19th century, based on the printed tourist guidebooks and newspaper advertisements that provided recommended places to visit, and the prices and travel time to sites outside Manila or Intramuros.

Of interest are a handful of restaurant advertisements in the revolutionary newspapers: La Independencia, edited by the fiery Antonio Luna, and El Heraldo de la Revolucion, Emilio Aguinaldo’s official paper. From the latter, we get an idea of what was available in Malolos, capital of the First Republic. On Calle Real in front of the Sacristy of the Church of Malolos was the Hotel Katipunan, described as a well-ventilated, cool house with spacious rooms. It catered to long-staying guests and charged P2.50 a day or P60 a month, with food covered for an extra charge. Restaurant Union was a house in front of the Malolos Cuartel on Pariancillo street that served moderately priced meals on days when the Malolos Congress was in session. It prided itself on its elegant and careful service. Pansiteria Makanista was in front of the Government Printing Press and served Macau-style food, which probably gave us the phrase “lutong macao.” For drinks, there was the Fabrica de Limonadas KKK, established in Barasoain by Lorenzo del Rosario. I can only guess if the lemonade was bottled and carbonated, or if it was served cold or with ice.

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From La Independencia, we have the International Hotel on 4 Calle Real in Intramuros, a restaurant and stylish hotel that took in boarders on a weekly, two-week or monthly basis very cheaply. It advertised simple meals for a peso — varied dishes, careful service, succulent and appetizing food: blung-buding [plum pudding?] and exquisite paella on Thursdays and Sundays, Cocido superior thrice a week. “Those who have not eaten at the International Hotel,” according to its presumptuous and insulting advertisement, “have no taste and don’t know how to eat well.”

Historians try to recreate a slice of the past based on stray evidence and traces left of written or pictorial documentation. Each time I look back on the 19th century from my primary sources, I often wonder: What will the historian of the future say of our times? Will he be able to recreate the Philippines in the 21st century from reviews on TripAdvisor?

[Comments are welcome at [email protected]]

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