Manila Mart: A cultural oasis for Filipinos in the DMV
Written by: Zach Wandalowski 🇵🇭
Toni-Rose Bioc, owner of Manila Mart standing in the store which was strategically chosen so that it was walking distance to her elementary school. Oct.17,2023 (Nyrene Monforte)
“Anak, wait – I have something for you.”
As I left my grandmother’s southern California house to head back to Maryland, she handed me a plastic grocery bag stuffed with all the Filipino essentials sourced from the vast selection of Filipino stores and restaurants in her area. Inside the bag lie spice packets needed to make every classic dish, thin bihon rice noodles used for making pancit stir frys, and a variety of different baked goods– ensaymadas, mamon, and red bean-filled hopia to keep me satisfied for meryenda after school.
Despite my protests informing her of my already overweight bag, she found just enough space to sneak it into my extra carry-on. “You need to eat well hun,” Lola would tell me, “I’m worried about you. Take the food, you won’t be able to get it in your area.”
Receiving food to bring home became a yearly tradition when visiting my Lola, a repurposing of the balikbayan tradition used to send goods back to the Philippines, instead being directed to ensuring I never went too long without eating Filipino food.
Food is the connective narrative that links together the diverse group of people spread across more than 7,000 islands of the Philippine archipelago, many of whom speak in different regional languages and have distinct cultures.
Through the cuisine, one can begin to unpack the complex history that resulted in the Filipino culture that we know today– influences from Malay and Chinese traders, more than 300 years of Spanish colonization and the enduring American presence that has loomed over the islands since the turn of the 20th century till today. And for the nearly 2 million Filipino immigrants in the U.S., the country’s fourth-largest immigrant group, food is a form of preservation of identity, culture and self in a foreign country.
In a growing community of Filipinos in the DMV, one store has taken up the mantle of being a Filipino home away from home, while also being an inviting place for all people to explore the Filipino culture headfirst through food.
Manila Mart’s story reflects the story of many Filipinos who moved to the U.S. for a better life. Owning the business served an unfilled niche in the community and allowed the Bioc family the flexibility to take care of their children.
Owner Toni-Rose Bioc recalls the location being strategically chosen so that it was walking distance to her elementary school. Her mom would help her father in the shop and make baked goods and food to sell when she wasn’t working as a nurse. The store evolved as the family gained a more stable foothold in the country. What once began in 1996 as a small, standalone store has evolved to add a kitchen, boba bar and dining area, allowing it to spread Filipino culture in the area through food.
Filipino food has played a central role in Toni-Rose’s life. She would have homemade Filipino food almost every night and relished in her classmates’ envy of the flavorful food she would pack for lunch. Her family’s food was a constant presence that connected her to her culture despite all of the assimilation pressures growing up in the U.S.
“Filipino cuisine is really everything– sweet, savory, sour, spicy – all of it,” Toni-Rose says.
The blending of diverse cuisines including Malay, Chinese, Spanish, added to the multitude of different techniques from cultures in the Philippines. This mixing leads to curious combinations like arroz caldo, a thick chicken-based rice porridge soup topped with lemon, fried garlic, and fish sauce, which has origins from Chinese congee, yet has a Spanish name. Another classic that Toni-Rose recommends even the most timid diners try is chicken adobo: the national dish of the Philippines. It is a testament to the diverse origins of the cuisine. Often thought of as a dish originating from Spain, its key technique of braising meat in vinegar and salt originates from Malay migrants, and many varieties include soy sauce, originally sourced from China. The dish changes from region to region, making it difficult to portray an adobo that will appeal to not only the diversity of the Philippines, but for other audiences as well.
I ordered both a more approachable dish and an underrated dish that Toni-Rose recommended to me. Lumpia is one of the most well-known dishes, often found at parties. They are skinny, crispy egg-rolls stuffed with chicken or pork and vegetables paired with a family specialty– a sweet, squash-based dipping sauce made in-house. I paired it with a dish recommended for those with a more adventurous palette, dinuguan, colloquially euphemized as “chocolate meat”. This dish consists of diced pork stewed in pork’s blood, vinegar, and other spices. The deep, rich flavor and tanginess of the stew in combination with steaming hot white rice make this a dish that you can’t miss.
To tie them together, I added a dish that speaks to the innovative nature of the Filipino cuisine, and the industriousness of the people. Sisig is a dish that originated in the Pampanga region in central Luzon, around the U.S. Clark Air Force Base. Discarded pig heads by American service members were transformed into minced pork and onion, topped with vinegar and calamansi and served sizzling on top of rice or, if you’re a fan of fusion dishes, on top of a bed of french fries.
Dinuguan, sisig, and lumpia on Oct.17,2023 (Nyrene Monforte)
Filipinos are known for their sweet tooths and Manila Mart allows for indulgence to the highest degree. This time I opted for the colorful halo-halo, translated to mix-mix, which is a shaved ice dessert topped with ube and mango ice cream with fillings that include fruit jellies, red beans, banana, and creamy leche flan. Other drink bar specials include the seasonal specials of mais con yelo, which pairs shaved ice with sweetened corn, corn flakes, and mais ice cream, and taho, a dessert made of silken tofu, tapioca pearls, and a brown sugar syrup famously served by hawkers on the streets of Manila.
Halo-halo on Oct.17,2023 (Nyrene Monforte) '
Roaming the aisles stocked with banana ketchup, shrimp crackers and purple ube pastries sourced from local Filipino home-bakeries, I begin to understand the importance of community staples like Manila Mart.
The store’s inviting nature and the novelty of the different snacks and baked goods attract curious newcomers looking to dive headfirst into the culture via their five senses, best exemplified by two of my non-Filipino friends walking out of the store with multiple bags stuffed to the brim with treats. Yet, in Toni-Rose’s words, Manila Mart also aims to provide a sense of familiarity for those who might not have family here or don’t want to cook, but still want “that taste of home”. They embody what it means to be a true pillar of the community, whether it be working within tight student organization budgets to cater events or cooking nine pounds of lechon to fulfill a last-minute order for a family party.
Though she won’t let me refuse, I’ve noticed the packages of Filipino cooking ingredients from my Lola getting lighter since I mentioned Manila Mart. Every time I send a picture of the sweet fried longganisa links I buy at the market, paired with fried eggs and garlic rice, she beams with pride, enjoying how connected I am to the culture despite being away from family. “I’m so glad you can find Filipino food by you,” she tells me. “You make sure you eat well, anak.”