Noodles…it’s the food that ties Asia together, the symbol of long life, the one thing that must be present in anyone’s birthday. Originating from ancient China, the noodle has already wrapped itself around the world, and various versions of it has sprouted from many different places, from the “soba” of Japan, to the “pad thai” of Thailand, to the “hab-hab” of Lucban, Quezon. You could hardly call yourself Asian if you don’t have noodles on special occasions, and here in the Philippines, not even 300 years of Spanish influence could knock the “pancit” (Filipino term for noodle dishes) out of the Filipino dining table.
I myself, back when I was a child, couldn’t last a week without noodles. Whether it’s the pre-packed instant ones that cooks in 3 minutes, or “Pancit Canton”, which is a staple of most Chinese restaurants in the Philippines, it’s an absolute must that I have it from time to time.
However, life always springs surprises, and recently we found something that made me feel like I had noodles for the first time again. The place is named Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao, with their lone Philippine outlet at the Greenhills complex (though they have many others scattered throughout eastern Asia).
Here at Crystal Jade, they make fresh noodles by hand, right by their kitchen which is open for the public to see. Guests can actually see the noodle chefs pulling dough and stretching them into thin strings with their bare fingers, and this “kitchen display” is quite a spectacle for people like me whose only idea of uncooked noodles are the dry, brittle ones packed in plastic.
Their fresh hand-made noodles come out with a texture that’s quite unique from anything else I’ve tried before, even from the noodle houses of Binondo. I could still taste a hint of the fresh dough in each strand, like a thin, compact, freshly rolled bread. The noodles are also heavier in the stomach, and it felt as if each thin string had twice the density of noodles that you would get from elsewhere. The flavor and over-all feel were just so delightfully different, that it felt like I haven’t had noodles before.
Crystal Jade, by virtue of their long (and hard to pronounce, for some) name, also pride themselves with their Xiao Long Bao – that exquisite Shanghainese soup-in-a-dumpling dim sum dish. Filipinos are no stranger to dim sum, with siomai (called shao mai or shumai, etc in other places) and other dumplings gaining a status close to being ubiquitous street food, but most would probably find the Xiao Long Bao quite peculiar. Like most dumplings, it’s most basic form is meat wrapped in wrappers made of flour, but distinguishes itself by having soup inside.
I have been trying Xiao Long Bao in every restaurant in this county I’ve come across that serves it, but in most cases, either the wrapper breaks apart on contact with chopsticks (spilling the precious soup), or the wrapper holds together but is too tough and rubbery, or worse, the whole thing gets dry.
Crystal Jade, by far, seems to be the only one that gets their Xiao Long Bao right. The wrapper is soft but does not break, and there’s a generous amount of meat and soup within. Wrapping soup and meat in flour is no easy task (I could only imagine), but the cooks at Crystal Jade seem to have mastered the art.
Crystal Jade also has an extensive menu, filled with many cantonese dishes that most Filipinos would be familiar with, and judging by the two times that we’ve been here, you couldn’t go wrong with any of their other dishes (though when then menu says it is spicy, IT IS spicy).
Greenhills is not near where we live, and to get there, we have to navigate through EDSA (Manila’s main artery), where huge traffic jams and erratic bus drivers stand between us and our precious noodles and Xiao Long Bao. However, believe you me when I say, that one bite is all it takes to make the trip worth it.
* All photos taken last November 2011, with Panasonic Lumix LX5.