Way before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines, the Chinese were a constant presence in the country. That’s because they regularly traded with the early settlers. In fact, the presence of the Chinese remains strong to this day. Some would even argue that Chinese influence is much more prevalent in Cebu than in Manila.
Food is one of the biggest indicators of how pervasive Chinese culture is. Chinese cuisine is so commonplace in Cebu that you can even purchase some choice appetizers in grocery stores. Indeed, Cebuanos clearly love Chinese food.
History of Chinese Food in Cebu
To understand how deep this love for Chinese food is entrenched, it helps to explore the history of the Chinese community in the Queen City of the South. As mentioned before, early Filipino settlers traded with Chinese merchants not only in the Philippines but by also travelling to mainland China. While Chinese traders have been in the Philippines way before Spanish colonization, they officially established their own settlement in 1590, which is around the time of the Galleon trade.
It didn’t take long for these Chinese settlers to serve their food to the locals, some of which are now staples in several Cebu restaurants, such as the following:
Siomai is quite popular in Cebu.
This steamed dumpling used to be only served in fine dining restaurants in Cebu. But around 2001, Jeffrey Quillosa, a snack-house owner at Tisa, Labangon, asked his cook to prepare something that goes well with their in-house halo-halo. Initially, the cook only made siopao but shortly started preparing siomai as well. To their surprise, their customers started ordering more of the siomai compared to their other dishes. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, almost every barangay has one or two siomai stores or vendors. Thanks to D’Original Siomai sa Tisa, siomai has become more accessible to the masses. And it’s best eaten with its signature red chili sauce. So if you are wondering what is one of the best Chinese dishes to order if you are on a budget, simply find the nearest siomai stall.
Try some of these crispy and meaty ngohiong.
While there are different types of spring rolls, ngohiong holds a special place in the heart of Cebuanos. But what many don’t know is that this kind of spring roll is testament to Chinese influence from the Fujian province. That’s because a portion of the original Chinese settlers in Cebu originally hail from said province.
But what makes ngohiong different from lumpia? While it is regarded as a kind of lumpia, what makes this spring roll distinct is it coats the wrapper in an egg and flour-based batter, making the exterior crunchier and crispier. Another distinction is that standard lumpia is served with regular sweet-and-sour sauce. Ngohiong, on the other hand, is served with a more traditional 5-spice Hokkien sauce. Lastly, it’s also bigger compared to regular lumpia.
Much like siomai, barangays have their own ngohiong stalls and vendors. But in downtown Cebu, the best places to eat this dish is either in Doming’s and TJRB’s.
Steamed Fried Rice
Help yourself to a bowl of steamed fried rice.
Out of all the dishes on this list, this is probably the only one that is an original but still clearly influenced by Chinese food culture. This dish was created by Henry Uytengsu, owner of Chinese-themed restaurant Ding Qua Qua that paved the way for Chinese eateries to be normalized.
Like any fried rice recipe, you first start by sauteing day-old rice with some choice spices and sauces. But for this dish, you also have to make a special meaty sauce that you slather all on top of the bowl of fried rice and steam it again. The end result is a bowl of savory meat goodness. What’s even more pleasant is the addition of the sauce gives the rice a congee-like texture (minus the soup, of course).
When you travel to Cebu, some of the best restaurants that serve this dish include Dimsum Break, Harbour City, Ding Qua Qua, and Braddex.
Having a filling snack by buying some siopao.
This traditional steamed bun isn’t only popular in Cebu but the rest of the Philippines. It’s quite a popular snack among students and blue-collar workers. The contrast between the soft bun and meaty exterior make for a filling snack.
Siopao traditionally comes in two flavors, namely asado and bola-bola. You can pretty much eat the asado version on its own, but if you order bola-bola, you can pair it with banana ketchup.
All in all, if you are looking for a quick snack while enjoying the Cebu nightlife, how about filling up with some siopao.
Celebrate with a plate full of bam-i.
Cebuanos are fond of pancit. However, they usually serve this on special occasions. Bam-i is no different. But what sets apart this noodle fish is the fact that it uses two kinds, namely pancit canton and vermicelli. As a result, not only is it hearty but you also get a range of textures from both noodles.
And when you stir-fry with some onions, garlic, carrots, cubed pork, and other choice ingredients, you have a meal fit for a king. No wonder it’s only served on special occasions.
Here’s an additional fun fact: for Filipinos, noodles signify long life, which is why this dish is a staple on birthday celebrations. If you bring this to someone’s birthday party, in a way you wish that person to live a happy and long life ahead.
The best part is it’s easy to find establishments that serve some or all of these dishes.
Lately, there are other regional Chinese dishes that Cebuanos are learning to love, such as milk tea with pearls. But if you look closely, even some of the most authentic Filipino dishes have traces of Chinese influence.
For instance, Cebu’s very own humba is believed to have been influenced by Hong Ba or more popularly known as Hong Shao Rou (red braised pork belly), not the Spanish adobo. Even the way the infamous lechon is prepared and cooked is heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine considering the Cebuano version hardly needs any condiment to compliment its taste.
The point is the influence of Chinese food has greatly shaped the overall culture of the Philippines and, more importantly, Cebu.