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Cigarette ads in a Chinese ‘panciteria’ menu

Smart restaurant on T. Pinpin Street, off Escolta, was the panciteria of my childhood. It is now just a happy memory, together with another landmark, the Philippine National Bank building, repurposed into the City College of Manila in the late 1990s, where I had a corner office with a million-peso view of the Manila Post Office, the Pasig River, and the Letran-side of Intramuros.

Below my office window was the Capitol theater, recently torn down. In my 30s, I was lucky to have caught Smart panciteria in its twilight; I would order the same things my parents ordered when I was a boy: breaded frog legs, fish ball soup, calamares, scallops in kinchay, bokchoy in oyster sauce, steamed lapu-lapu, yangchow, salted fish or ham duck rice, with elegant iced gulaman on the side to wash it all down. Dessert was always a toss between freshly fried buchi or iced lychee and almond jelly, served in those heavy glasses with thick rims that the adults always joked was like giving a French kiss to someone with unusually large lips.

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My coiffed and perfumed mother always had a kick dining in this dingy restaurant, with its chipped dishes, plastic chopsticks, and cups that almost never matched their saucers. We never ate in the booths and tables on the ground floor, but always in the more private mezzanine that only had three formica-top tables with lazy Susans. My parents were suki and knew everyone, from the daughter of the owner who manned the cash register to an Indian-looking man who took our orders and passed it on to “Tong” in the kitchen, or the man with an Aguinaldo-style crew-cut called “Virata.” In my martial law childhood, the adults took great pleasure in giving their food orders to the man who resembled Cesar E.A. Virata, who rose from finance secretary to become prime minister of the Philippines.

Spring cleaning during ECQ revealed a printed menu from Smart that I took home one day. Though it was printed in the 1970s, its form and contents were the same as when the restaurant had opened in the 1950s. Prices were not printed on the menu and were probably added manually. The carton menu covers on the front and back had pictures of cigarettes rather than food, suggesting that Philip Morris sponsored the printing, very much like how Coke and Pepsi sponsored sari-sari store signage in those days. Sari-sari stores now compete with 24/7 air-conditioned convenience stores, and those that are still around now sport billboards sponsored by the telcos: Globe, Smart, or Sun, offering loads for unlimited calls, SMS texts, and surfing.

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The Smart panciteria menu had Marlboro, Philip Morris, and Coolem Mentholized American Filter-blend cigarettes. The last page of the menu had an illustration of a steaming bowl of “Soup No. 5 For Body Vigor” that was never served during our family meals. Beside this was “Miscellaneous,” which listed: soft drinks, beer, orange, lemon, and kalamansi juice; coffee and tea, both iced or hot; and fruits—banana, watermelon, papaya, iced lychee, or longan. “Rice Any Style,” meanwhile, meant rice with chicken, chopsuey, beef, shrimp, fish, or asado. There was also “Milk Shake with Egg.”

The middle of the Smart menu listed the main dishes (some I mentioned earlier), a wide assortment of sandwiches, sate (ihaw and guisado) and 60 items in Spanish grouped in three sections: Caldo (Boiled in broth), Guisado (Stewed), and dishes classified by main ingredient: Gallina (Chicken), Camaron (Shrimp), Puerco (Pork), Pescado (Fish), Cangrejo (Crab), Lumpia (Spring Roll), Pinsec (Fried Wonton), and Morisqueta (Rice). All these Spanish words in a Chinese panciteria menu were traces from the Spanish colonial period.

Filipino, our National Language, is not just Tagalog, it has been enriched with many Chinese food terms: Am/rice broth; Angkak/reddish leaves for fermentation; Batsoy/chopped pork-loin soup; Bihon/white rice noodles; Biko/rice cake; Bilu-bilo/glutinous rice ball in guinataan; Bitsin/MSG; Bitso/fried rice flour cake; Hopia/sweet mongo cake; Ho/good Pia cake/pastry made famous by Eng Bee Tin and the older Ho-Land and Polland; Humba/pork dish; Hibe/salt-dried shrimp; Lomi/noodle dish with pork and chicken; Lumpia/rolled dumpling; Mami, Miki, Misuwa, Sotanghon/noodles, while Pansit, from pian+sit/literally “conveniently cooked dish”; Pancit mami/originally cooked dish but in Filipino refers to noodle in broth; Pesa/boiled fish, etc.

Our history is marked by Spanish, American, and Japanese occupations. The Chinese? They’ve lived under our skin even before the People’s Republic of China came to be and started stealing our territorial waters.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Capitol theater, Manila Post Office, martial law childhood, panciteria, Smart restaurant
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