Chicken in soy sauce
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What: Taho (“tah-ho”) is your breakfast protein in a cup. Its base is a very bland, soft version of warm silky tofu that’s sweetened with arnibal (“ar-nee-bahl”), a caramelized sugar syrup (the best uses sugarcane-based muscovado), and topped with tiny sago (“sah-goh”), gummy balls or pearls from the sago palm. As a breakfast item, it’s very similar to dishes served in Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and South Korea—the tofu base tends to remain constant in most places, but the accompanying flavor can be spicy, savory, or sweet. No doubt, taho is a Chinese invention that traveled the region, taking on local ingredients—like soy sauce, ginger, chili oil, peanuts, and mung beans—for flavor. Filipinos, boasting a thriving sugarcane industry from the late 1700s up till the 1970s, have stuck with arnibal (see also sago’t gulaman), which gives the warm taho a sweet, earthy dimension. This is a perfect breakfast on the go: warming and filling, with chewy sago and just enough sugar to get you through the morning.
Good to know: Traditionally, taho vendors hawk their product using a yoke-and-bucket system that’s hundreds of years old. Two aluminum buckets are suspended from each end of a bamboo pole—one containing the soft tofu, the other containing the arnibal, sago, and other necessities, including plastic cups, spoons, and the day’s takings. Taho vendors balance their signature contraption on one shoulder and walk the streets calling “Tah-ho-o-o-o-o,” drawing out the second syllable for as long as the breath can handle.
More: See 24 other local foods you can't miss in Manila.
Where: We found our taho vendor at the Legaspi Sunday Market (Legaspi St. corner VA Rufino St. (formerly Herrera St.), Salcedo Village, Makati City, map). It was a slightly posh location for a very humble thing, but since the market sells all manner of foodstuff and crafts—from organic local produce and rice cakes galore to paella, preserves, potted plants, and furniture—the taho vendor blended right in. And a cup of taho proved the perfect accompaniment to a morning spent taking in the market’s sights, sounds, aromas, and flavors.
When: Sundays, 7am-2pm. It’s best to arrive around 8am before the sun heats everything up.
Order: Our taho went for Php 20 in a good-size paper cup. We loved watching the vendor prepare it: First he opened the bigger of the two buckets, where the soft tofu was kept. He skimmed some liquid off the top, tossing it right onto the ground, and scooped the tofu into the cup in his hand. Replacing the lid on one bucket, he opened the half-lid on the other, revealing partitions for the syrupy arnibal and the pile of cooked sago balls. He ladled the arnibal and sago in, gave the cup a quick stir, and handed it over. The taho was delicious, and fun to eat—the tofu base was finer than custard, practically disintegrating in our mouths; the arnibal imparted a warm, molasses-like aroma, with a slightly burnt edge; the tiny sago, softer than gummy bears, gave just a little bit of chew. As you eat it, the cup gets sweeter, as the arnibal pools at the bottom. Locals literally slurp it down in gulps, but we took our time enjoying it.
Alternatively: People who grew up in Manila have fond memories of waiting for the taho vendor’s morning yodel, but that might be hard to orchestrate unless your hotel room is at street level. Ask your doorman if he knows what time the dude comes around, or else you could be waiting for Godot. You can increase your chances of finding taho by heading to a tea shop like ChaTime (multiple branches including one at SM Mall of Asia, Pasay City, map) or visiting the concourse level of Power Plant Mall (Rockwell Dr. corner Estrella St., Poblacion, Makati City, map), where you can find street hawker-turned-young-entrepreneur Mang Nelson—just look for the guy with the aluminum buckets and a bamboo pole.
Good to know: Lately, there’s been some experimentation with various flavors and syrups to replace arnibal. So far, we’ve heard that strawberry taho is a hit in Baguio City, where local strawberries are preserved as a chunky jam and added to the bland tofu. The only catch? Baguio is six hours by bus from Manila. But keep your eyes peeled for variations on the arnibal theme around Manila, too—you never know what the next trend in taho will be!
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