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Starweek Magazine

The last Chocolatier

- Ivan Man Dy -
It’s an unmistakable aroma that tingles the senses, a nostalgic whiff that harks back to the days of yore beckoning as you walk along bustling Ongpin Street in the heart of Manila’s four-hundred-year-old Chinatown. Step into this little unassuming shop–a hole-in-a-wall really–and treat yourself to the rich, envigorating smell of roasted cocoa, a remnant of our Hispanic culinary legacy tucked amidst the pungent smells of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs .

This is the La Resureccion Fabrica de Chocolate–Lao Sun Tiak to Hokkien-speaking old-timers–the last chocolate factory in Chinatown. For sure, it’s a far cry from Willy Wonka’s fabled fantasy mill, as what’s churned out here is not chocolate with fancy flavors and eye-catching wrappers but rather tableas or pure chocolate balls which our grandmothers used to whip with up to foam with the trusty batidor (wooden hand mixer).

Stamped as it is with nostalgia, La Resureccion is by no means the oldest chocolate factory in Binondo; the business was only established in the 1930’s. "It was my grandfather Toh Kim Sia who started this trade," says 40-year old Johnny To, current proprietor and the third-generation chocolatero in the family.

Arriving in Manila from Amoy, China at the turn of the century, the elder Toh first peddled his tableas around the streets of Chinatown. Initially, the chocolates were made at his house. It was a very laborious task, since everything was done manually, from firing up the wood-burning stove to roasting the cocoa and mixing in the sugar. "They came in big blocks and not in pre-packed packages in those days," Johnny recalls.

It was only in 1930 that Toh Kim Sia opened his store in its current spot along Ongpin Street. And as is the old Chinese tradition, the reins of the business were handed over to the son–usually the eldest but, in this case, to the son who had the interest to continue the trade. "My brothers wanted a different path so it fell on my lap," says Johnny.

Managing the factory since he was 18, Johnny remembers that there used to be five tablea factories in Chinatown, but the others have long closed shop. "One of the main reasons was because the owners eventually changed the original recipe, scrimping on the ingredients which in turn made their tableas lose quality. Not so with us," Johnny asserts. "We have maintained the same consistency and quality from the days when my angkong (grandfather) used to run it."

Indeed, a peek inside the factory reveals how little has changed over the last seven decades. "With the exception of a few mechanical adjustments, the process hasn’t changed," Johnny explains.

The first step involves the roasting of cocoa beans in a huge vat. This is followed by sifting to separate the beans from the powdery cocoa shells, a process done manually using the trusty, hand-woven bilao. The beans are then ground, turned to paste and molded to become chocolate balls or tableas. Finally, the tableas are hand-wrapped in La Resureccion’s signature paper wrappers. In the old days, the tableas were wrapped in plain leftover newsprint.

Of late, La Resureccion is kept busy churning out its two variants– sweetened and unsweetened–and, with a steady stream of customers, business seems to be doing well. That, however, is not always the case: "Cocoa seeds are hard to come by since there really isn’t a cocoa industry here and prices fluctuate depending on the availability of raw materials." Indeed, when you have to source your cocoa from as far away as Mindanao, it all adds up on the cost. "And it doesn’t help that cocoa seeds are very sensitive and not really the easiest trees to grow," he adds.

But still, business prospects look promising. To date, La Resureccion has started exporting its tableas to Southern China, a demand spurred by the Chinese penchant for health tonics.

"Chocolates are good for warming tummies during the winter months, and it also promotes blood circulation," he claims, adding that only Hokkiens –the ethnic group to which the majority of Chinese-Filipinos belong–have taken to this habit. "To make it richer, add one egg," Johnny advises.

Asked whether he has any plans to modernize the factory, Johnny smiles. "Probably not in my lifetime. That will have to depend on my kids–if they want to take over this trade."

It will be a real pity if Johnny To is, indeed, the last chocolatier.

COCOA

JOHNNY

JOHNNY TO

LA RESURECCION

LA RESURECCION FABRICA

LAO SUN TIAK

ONGPIN STREET

SOUTHERN CHINA

TABLEAS

TOH KIM SIA

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