While Asians may find it difficult to unite under one deity, hair color or even traffic orientation, at least we collectively share something of greater importance—the passion for noodles. There’s no denying that we would readily renounce our siblings or pierce our tongue, twice, just to gain possession of the last cup noodle in the cupboard. And that’s true love.
This gluttonous love affair has gotten me as far as nearly posing a fire hazard to our home in my lame attempts to create vegetarian chap chae and tikka masala curry noodles from scratch. Nothing good ever came out of this experience—except for a house still intact, which I tell others as a form of consolation. And this constant longing for pristine noodles—I have painfully learned, must be sourced elsewhere. My dreams of slurping down Shirataki and the succulent udon or catching a whiff of the tangy aroma of seafood hofan—all these are to be fulfilled by travel or local restaurants, in an effort to preserve the sanity of our home and finally allow our neighbors to enjoy a good night’s sleep, sans the fear of dying from suffocation.
Scouring the restaurants in Manila can be quite arduous and disappointing—I have miserably discovered. The metro hosts a multitude of Chinese restaurants that serve the usual fares, which are nothing spectacular and satiating and are nonetheless oil-laden and spell mediocrity with their un-al dente noodles—pancit canton, guisado, birthday noodles, the bedridden misua and liver-spattered lomi. Vegetarians are meant to suffer from this repertoire of meaty mayhem, while those seeking to live long can do so with cholesterol attacks until eternity. Some local restaurants do serve nearly palatable noodle dishes but are nothing boast-worthy. Previously visited Oody’s dishes out mediocrity in small amounts and falls secondary in my top places for dining pleasure. North Park serves noodles with what I suppose is beef soup base that just makes my inner PETA flare up in angst. Pho Hoa is priced a bit steep, for a bowl that is anything but big and hefty, and Mann Hann has got to be the noisiest place in the planet.
Spying Banana Leaf at the Trinoma 4F seemed like a gift form the collective deities of the Asian heavens. It did not matter that were were about to partake our meal on a leaf with questionable hygiene; my noodle fantasy was about to become a reality, and that’s all my stomach cared about.
Banana Leaf showcases popular dishes from neighboring Asian countries; hence, a menu populated with words like curry, lemograss, laksa, roti, tom, phad and of course, stir-fried. Even the tempting vegetable samosas and chicken satay could not sidetrack my goal. I came for noodles and intended to stick with the plan. Based on the descriptions and a bit of visual analysis (okay, staring at the photos) we ended up ordering the following based on my noodles choices for the day: Penang Char Kway Teow, Seafood Fried Rice Noodle and Vermicelli with Malay Sauce and Phad Thai – Thai Style.
The Penang Char Kway Teow, literally translated as stir-fried ricecake strips, is better recognized in Penang, Malaysia as a hawker street food. Unlike Filipino street foods that are more functional than palatable, the Char Kway Teow beckons people blocks away with its zesty aroma. Banana Leaf glorifies this street food by adding plump shrimps for that protein-rich, upper class appeal. Flat rice noodles, bean sprouts and egg make up the bulk of the textures—mainly soft and chewy. The soy sauce blend is made more appetizing once heated up, making it slightly sweet, spicy and thick. There is no surfeit of salt or any overpowering seasoning that can imbalance the sense of taste, which makes the dish mellow in flavor yet greatly appealing. The irresistible aroma alone takes me back to the side streets of Penang—quite the exaggeration because I haven’t been to Malaysia—but somehow, the noodles leave a feeling of Malay authenticity, I might as well pretend to have been there.
The Fried Rice Noodle and Vermicelli provides the continental counterpart of the Chinese crispy noodles. The fried vermicelli rests at the bottom of a viscuous sauce made primarily with egg, and I wonder if this to compensate for using non egg noodles in an otherwise, egg noodle-rich dish. The fried vermicelli mimics the egg noodles and imparts the same crisp-alternated-with-chewy bits of noodles. Adding to the drama and texture are the hefty rice noodle squares that double as toppings and go well with the gigantic shrimps, squid and vegetable slices that grace the sauce. It’s a filling seafood catch, and coincidentally tastes just like the sea—complete with intense saltiness that seems to go straight to my kidneys. Seriously, who would’ve thought that this egg-based and pallid sauce would reap all the salt in Asia? Salty, cream-heavy, and not too photogenic as well, I’m thinking of pursuing another vermicelli dish in the future, should the craving re-arise. Blame it on the Penang Char Kway Teow—it got all the credit.
Signature Thai noodle dish Phad Thai – Thai Style (“Fried Thai style”) ought to be a no-brainer for Banana Leaf’s master chef. Rice noodles and egg stir-fried with the popular sweet-sour-salty-and-semi-spicy sauce garnished with peanuts and chives offer that exquisite tang that only the Thai noodles could create. With the Filipinos’ penchant for similarly diverse flavors (fish sauce + sugar) the Pad Thai is an easy crowd pleaser. Unfortunately for the Thais, I thrive on bland food and ban fish sauce in our household so at first glance, I knew that my mortal enemy has been born – but I gave it a chance. One bite told me that it was not the fish sauce to fear, but rather, the overly sweetened sauce that dares to compete with the Filipino super-sweet spaghetti mix that kids love. This kid certainly didn’t love the syrupy concoction and wished for a more mellow sauce to go with the firm noodles that otherwise would’ve been perfect. Filipinos would find delight in this semi sweet noodle dish that veers away from the curry laden and spiced up dishes in the menu. If I want a real Phad Thai though, I’d have to wait every Sunday for our Legaspi Market picnic.
Appetizers abound, the Vietnamese Vermicelli Spring Roll and Chicken with Sticky Rice were immediate choices for their promising names and well, noodle associations. Both carry the same sweet and sour sauce on the side and were perhaps fried on the same pan – just a hunch. The spring roll was nothing extraordinary and was rendered tasteless without the sauce. The vermicelli at the center did not burst with chewy glutinous goodness (which I was expecting) and were on the dry side, in contrast to the greased up, crisp wrapper. The chicken wings were just as ordinary and like the Fried Rice Noodle and Vermicelli, pretended to be camera-shy. For P128 per serving though, the price range for appetizers is rather friendly on the pocket and allows us to experiment, binge and not cry over unsavory choices. And most of them look fantastic on the photo, I’m certain on our next visit, we’d hit the appetizer jackpot! (Thai Vermicelli Salad, would that be you?)
Leafing through the Banana Leaf menu will shower you with more pictures and noodle offerings, there’s a huge chance you’ll be planning to spend your next birthday there. Noodles though aren’t the only tempting fares on the roster. With soups, vegetables, seafood and even appetizers in abundance, it seems that we’ll be 4F Trinoma denizens for some time, unless some kind Malaysian or Singaporean family decides to adopt me, and I can have all the noodles, even for breakfast – for the rest of my life. And that’s what I call living the Asian dream!