The origins of chao long in Palawan

Clean, white tables contrast with the bright blue walls of Puerto Princesa’s Pham Chaolong, as we enter in search of lunch. Fans high up on the walls circulate the hot summer air, and condensation drips from the glass soft drink bottles long before they make it to the tables. A simple menu hangs from one wall advertising the restaurant’s offerings. Intricate red Chinese knots sway in time with the fans above the counter.

Pham Chaolong menu - Puerto Princesa, Philippines

In a country where we have grown used to the vinegary tang of adobe, buffet-style meals of rice and (often unknown) meats and vegetables, and the ubiquitous grilled pork and chicken – available everywhere from spit roasts at streetside holes-in-the-wall to critically acclaimed restaurants, this simple culinary diversity stands out.

We order two bowls of soup, one beef, one pork, and a cheese-topped baguette to round off the meal.

The history of chao long

If you’re thinking that the menu sounds more like Saigon than Cebu, you’d be right.

In 1975, when the Vietnam War ended, thousands of Vietnamese people took to the seas in search of safety outside of their homeland. Hundreds of thousands ended up in the neighbouring islands of the Philippines.

By 1979, a refugee camp, known as the Philippine First Asylum Centre (PFAC), had been established in Puerto Princesa city, on the island of Palawan, as a joint initiative between the Philippines government, the Catholic Church, and the UN High Commission for Refugees. A second camp, in Bataan, opened the following year.

With large numbers of Vietnamese people living together in these camps, it’s unsurprising that their cuisine also came with them. And as the refugee communities gradually integrated into local Filipino society, a number of Vietnamese restaurants opened in Puerto Princesa and nearby Viet Ville, a village approximately 10km from the centre of the city where many of the remaining Vietnamese families chose to live when PFAC was closed in 1995.

In Vietnamese cuisine, the phrase ‘chao long’ refers to a congee-style rice soup, flavoured by congealed blood cubes and fortified by the liver and other internal organs of a pig. Palawan chao long, on the other hand, is more like the Filipino equivalent of the Vietnamese pho, with flat rice noodles, tender slices of meat (not offal), delicately flavoured broth, and a side plate of fresh herbs and sprouts to supplement the dish.

Pho - Ben Thanh Market, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Vietnamese pho from Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City

Although no one is really sure how the two dishes came to have the same name, it is believed that outsiders entered the refugee camp to eat, asked the name of the beef stew with noodle dish and were – mistakenly or otherwise – told it was called ‘chao long’. Somehow, the name stuck and, as many of the refugees have gradually been repatriated either back to Vietnam, or on to third countries, such as the USA, Canada or Australia, Palawan chaolong has taken on an identity of its own.

Differences between Filipino chao long and Vietnamese pho

The origins of chao long may be Vietnamese, but over time the dish has come to be a distinctly Palaweño specialty. Aside from replacing the lime wedge accompaniment with a local calamansi (a native Philippines hybrid citrus fruit, thought to be part mandarin, part kumquat), and focusing on mung bean sprouts over leaves of mint and basil, a key change to the broth recipe involves the addition of banana ketchup.

During World War II, the Philippines experienced a shortage of tomato ketchup so developed their own local alternative, using a far more readily-available crop. The condiment can be found on tables in almost every restaurant in the country, and, more recently, artisan foodies (such as Isi, whose cooking class we took in Manila) have started broadening the range to make ketchups from other locally grown produce.

The sauce adds a reddish colour to the chao long soup, and sweetens it, relative to its Vietnamese counterpart.

Aside from pho, one of Vietnam’s most recognisable dishes is banh mi, a sandwich made with a French baguette (left over from the French colonial period, which preceded the Vietnam War). Unlike the traditional baguette, which is made exclusively from wheat flour, both the Vietnamese and Filipino versions are made with a combination of wheat flour and rice flour (often locally sourced). Although banh mi is generally considered a meal in its own right, the Philippines has co-opted the simple baguette for its own ends, and made it part of the chao long experience.

Pork chao long and cheese French bread - Pham Chaolong, Puerto Princesa

Often sold separately from the noodle soup in a chaolongan, and with options for a range of fillings (including beef, chicken, garlic, and processed cheese), Filipino people (and tourists better informed than we were) tend to eat the French loaf by breaking off chunks and dunking them into the chao long.

When our lunch arrives, the light fresh flavours of the chao long take us both back to our earlier separate visits to Vietnam. As we reminisce, our plans for future travels traverse the globe, much like a recipe with its origins in European colonisation, and a diaspora caused by war.

To try chao long for yourself, we enjoyed our meal at Pham Chaolong (159 Rizal Avenue) but Bona’s Chaolong (Manalo Street Extension) also comes highly recommended. Reports indicate that the Viet Ville restaurant no longer maintains an authentic connection to its refugee past, but with dwindling numbers of families living there, the village may be worth a stop for its historical value anyway.

2 thoughts on “The origins of chao long in Palawan”

  1. This looks so good! I love pho, and chao long looks equally tempting! I really enjoyed the food history lesson too, especially how banana ketchup came about due to tomato ketchup shortages. Is banana ketchup similar in taste to tomato (i’m not imagining that it is) or just a totally different alternative?

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