Few cities inspire such polar opinions as Manila: You either love it or you hate it, or you love-hate it—but you will never have a neutral opinion of it. An urban sprawl with 12 million inhabitants, Metro Manila can be bewildering to first-timers: rich and poor; densely packed in some places and sprawling in others, towering high-rises dwarfing shanties that spill over estuaries. So-called pocket parks afford some sanity (and lush greenery) among the heat, the smog, the cacophony of urban noises, and the riots of color, while the people’s sincere, incomparable friendliness and legendary Filipino hospitality exude from everywhere.
According to Chinese Ming Dynasty accounts from 1373, the settlement on present-day Manila Bay at the mouth of the Pasig River was a bustling trade port, the capital of an empire composed of several kingdoms from as early as the 10th century. Arab, Indian, Malay, Indonesian, Japanese, and Chinese traders all rubbed elbows with the locals, exchanging gold, porcelain, fabrics, and spices. Its strategic location was not lost on the Spanish conquistadores in their quest for a viable spice route, and in 1571, the fortified district of Manila called Intramuros (“within the walls”) became the capital of the Spanish East Indies—an area that eventually covered the present-day Philippines, Guam and the Mariana Islands, Micronesia, Taiwan, Sabah, and parts of Indonesia.
The result of all that trading? Awesome, multidimensional, hard-to-put-your-finger-on and—most notably—seriously underrated food, from the sour, veggie-rich sinigang, the obviously Chinese pancit canton, peanutty kare-kare, heart-stopping crispy pata, and the mash-up of ingredients, colors, and textures that is halu-halo. Beyond the sheer variety of dishes, Manila is a real food culture; it’s not uncommon for locals to embark on spontaneous, informal “food trips”—when groups of friends, family, or office mates go out and hop from one dining establishment to another to experience different foods. Fortunately for them (and you), custom dictates five to six meals a day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus meriendas (snacks or light meals) in between and often a late-night snack before bed.
If you’re looking for a culinary adventure, it’s time for your own Manila food trip. Here’s your guide.
—Manila text & photos by Mona Polo
Note: Metro Manila is composed of 14 cities, of which the actual capital of the Philippines is the City of Manila. Most of our food picks can be found in three of these cities: Manila, Makati, and Taguig. For purposes of simplification, in this section we use the word Manila to refer to the entire Metro Manila, except where indicated.