I always find it amusing that the name of one of the most popular Filipino comfort foods sounds like the very word we use to call our mothers. Mami is a favorite snack or lunch fare and popular as ever among pinoys. It can be enjoyed come sun and rain, but it’s especially a hit during cold days. It’s the quintessential complete food much like what loaded hamburgers are to most Americans. But unlike other complete meals, mami is far more consummate because it has soup in it.
A bowl of mami has carbs, proteins, veggies, and the venerable broth made from ‘secret’ recipes. Each mami house boasts of an heirloom chicken-and-pork bones soup recipe supposedly passed on for generations, though a fairly recent evolution called pares mami uses beef-based soup. This purely beef broth variety came straight out of the lowly streets of modern Manila, particularly from pares joints and bulalo houses who wanted to have a basic component that would go well with either noodles or rice.
A classic mami’s composition is fairly simple. About a quarter of each bowl is made up of fresh egg noodles topped with every possible garnish imaginable, but original mami restaurants narrow down the choices to four main toppings, namely: chicken, beef, pork asado and wontons. Today, it’s not surprising to find establishments using chicken and pork innards and even pig’s brains as toppings in an effort to keep costs down. Or to make Hannibal Lecter feel right at home!
To the younger generation, any garnished noodle dish served with soup qualifies as mami. But there was a time when – before the onslaught of unintelligible three-syllable words found their way into the menus of each and every local Chinese restaurant – mami was simple and it had its own distinct qualities. True, it was invented by Chinese immigrants, but it was no doubt adapted to suit the discriminating tastes of Filipinos in the early and mid-1900s.
Ma Mon Luk – Mami Master
Our history books put the spotlight on Ma Mon Luk as the man who started the craze when he peddled noodle soup along the sidewalks of old Manila. The term mami is supposedly a combination of his family name Ma and mi, which is Chinese for noodles. From his lowly beginnings, Ma Mon Luk moved on to become an icon of the local dining scene, growing his customer base that included the higher rungs of Philippine society, including past and sitting presidents of the country at the time. There’s even a story that tells of Ma Mon Luk personally going to Malacañang Palace to deliver siopao and mami to patron and friend President Elpidio Quirino during the latter’s last days in office.
Through the years many classic mami houses have turned up, mainly in Manila and within the vicinity of Quiapo and Chinatown in Binondo. Sure, there were others that came before Ma Mon Luk, but it was he who would eventually put the classic mami we know today into the larger Filipino gastronomic consciousness. A number of classic mami joints still stand, run by the descendants of the very same Filipino-Chinese noodle soup pioneers. In fact some of them now have established their presence inside modern malls.
You can savor Ma Mon Luk’s legacy – complete with marble tabletops and open-air ambiance – in his two surviving establishments. One located along Quezon Boulevard in Quiapo, Manila and another along Quezon Avenue in Quezon City.
But if you don’t want to brave the chaotic and bedraggled streets of old Manila, there are other places where you can have a taste of no-fuss classic mami. In SM Megamall, there’s Masuki Mami House. In Greenhills, you can go to Ling Nam or Le Ching for a quick fix. Of course, you can also opt for modern versions of mami in places like Luk Yuen and Maxim’s Tea House. Many old panciterias or noodle houses also serve classic mami.
What’s Original Mami?
So how do you know if you’re having a classic or original mami? Well, it’s basically in the smell of the broth and noodles which permeates the air. An original mami house tends to have that balmy, almost greasy smell. My wife says classic mami smells like cachichas – you know, unwashed socks worn repeatedly for days. But that’s just her.
For purists, each bowl is also topped with spoonfuls of spring onions and sometimes with slices of wombok, or Chinese celery cabbage. And puh-lease, no carrot slices and boiled egg – lest your original mami will transform into batchoy or lomi or the deplorable bus-terminal mami. Also, original mami joints tend to have a bottle of brown sweet sauce in each table. Most people use the sauce for asado siopao, but classic mami connoisseurs won’t hesitate to drizzle some of it in their noodle soup.
On a final note, don’t forget to order siopao when having mami. It’s steamed bun with meat filling. Personally, I go for asado siopao filled with braised shredded pork or chicken. Some folks prefer bola-bola siopao which uses steamed chunks of meat, Chinese sausage and salted duck egg in the middle. Mami and siopao are considered siblings when it comes to Filipino snacks or lunch even if they do not necessarily complete each other. After all, mami is already a complete meal, remember?
Do you have a favorite classic mami and siopao house? Tell us about it in the comments.
Ma Mon Luk sits along Quezon Blvd. in Quiapo, Manila and also at 408 Quezon Ave. in Quezon City (near Banawe St. intersection).
Masuki Mami House can be found at 931 Benavidez St. in Binondo with branches at Sekai Center, 368 Ortigas Ave., Greenhills in San Juan and at the Basement of SM Megamall Bldg. B in Mandaluyong City.