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Starweek Magazine

Dinuguan in Zhongshan

Janvic Mateo - The Philippine Star

It’s like finding a piece of your identity in the middle of a foreign land. In Taipei’s Zhongshan district, there is a place that every Filipino would recognize: a counter full of different ulam to choose from, a nearby group of friends chattering in Tagalog over a meal of rice and viand, and loud – but not blaring – western music in the background.

 

In essence, Cres-Art is not different from the local carinderias that can be found in practically every corner of the Philippines.

But in places like Taiwan where Filipino cuisine is rare, finding a place full of recognizable dishes is a breath of fresh air for the thousands of overseas Filipino workers based there.

Established in 1996, Cres-Art Philippine Cuisine offers food that most Filipinos overseas yearn for – dinuguan, bopis, sinigang, kaldereta, ginataan, and a host of other Filipino dishes for NT$60 to NT$80 (P88 to P117).

Imelda Ching, owner of the restaurant, and her sister Mirasol set up shop in the mid-90s with two businesses – a gift shop and a stall selling Filipino food.

She wanted a gift shop, but I wanted to open my restaurant,” Ching tells STARweek. They eventually decided to close the first business and focus on the second one, which immediately became popular among Filipinos in the city.

From a stall in a department store frequented by Filipinos on Sundays, Cres-Art moved to its own place along Zhongshan N. Road in the early 2000s. A few years later, it moved to its present, much larger location along Teh-Wei street, still in the same district.

“At first I thought, where will Filipinos eat? Of course (in a restaurant serving) Filipino food,” Ching – who is married to a Taiwanese and has three daughters – says in Filipino.

Ching had always wanted to have her own restaurant because she enjoys meeting different people.

“I miss the Philippines,” she admits, and having an opportunity to meet her countrymen on an everyday basis helps cure her longing for her land. “You will feel that you are still in the Philippines because you have a lot of Filipino friends.”

The name Cres-Art, according to Ching, is in honor of her parents Cresencia and Arturo.

 

On a regular Sunday, when around 500 mostly Filipino workers flock to her restaurant, Ching’s day starts as early as Saturday afternoon. “I have to cook everything,” she says, since it would be expensive for her to hire a lot of people to help her.

From ten dishes during weekdays, the menu increases to at least 20 dishes on her busiest day. These include favorites such as barbeque, spaghetti, pancit bihon, arroz caldo, lumpia and sometimes even popular desserts such as leche flan and ube halaya.

Right now, she is happy that she is able to find her ingredients in Taipei, unlike before when she had to buy some of these in the Philippines.

“(But) business is not as good as in the past,” she says, noting that Filipinos in Taiwan have now spread out across the island. “Before, you will see nothing in this place during Sundays but Filipinos.”

With the decline in the number of Filipinos in Taipei, Ching plans to upgrade her business and try to attract local Taiwanese to try Filipino cuisine.

“Taiwanese people are now open, unlike in the past… The younger ones now know how to speak English,” she says.

Ching has a number of Taiwanese patrons who were either initially curious to try Filipino food or were introduced to the cuisine by Filipinos whom they know.

“They like the food… But of course I have to introduce it to them first,” she says.

The restaurant owner explains she would not let foreigners try dinuguan or bopis on their first visit, saying they might be shocked or refuse to try other things in the future.

“I explain and teach them how to eat, for instance, kare-kare,” she says. “It’s important that they know what they are eating.”

 

For the 49-year-old Ching, the fifth of 15 siblings, everything started with a dare.

In 1987, barely a year after getting a commerce degree from the Philippine School of Business Administration, she was asked by a friend to talk to an agency offering a job in Taiwan.

“I was asked if I wanted to work in Taiwan. My brother and I decided to try,” she recalls, saying she had tried different jobs, working as a secretary and in the quality control department of a factory.

“On my first week, I wanted to go home. It was really hard back then,” she admits.

But she went on and even worked as a commercial model for convenience store chain 7-11, and as a volunteer for a non-government organization helping battered women.

Ching, who is a quarter Chinese, eventually got dual citizenship after Taiwan offered amnesty to anyone who has Chinese blood.

She then met her husband, Chen Ren Cheng, whom she describes as very supportive of her decisions.

“I was pregnant with my third daughter when we decided to open Cres-Art,” she recalls.

Cres-Art is located in an area in Taipei’s Zhongshan district known as “Little Manila,” which is a few minutes’ walk from the Minquan train station.

Known for a number of Filipino groceries, money remittance centers and even a gadget store manned by Filipinos, the area is near St. Christopher’s Church where OFWs gather for Sunday morning mass.

A department store in the area is also full of different stalls offering various services to Filipinos, including computer rentals and local SIM cards. One grocery even sells balut for NT$15 (P22) each, or three for NT$50 (P73).

But it is at Cres-Art that Filipinos in Taipei get that delicious, back-home taste.

ART

CHEN REN CHENG

CHING

CRES

CRES-ART

CRES-ART PHILIPPINE CUISINE

CRESENCIA AND ARTURO

FILIPINO

FILIPINOS

IMELDA CHING

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