The Legend of Ma Mon Luk

Vic Torres on one of the country’s oldest (and tastiest) legacies

by Jose Victor Z. Torres

When Quiapo was only a 20-minute walk from my former office in Intramuros, a lunchtime ritual was eating at the Ma Mon Luk Restaurant on Quezon Boulevard. One of the waiters already knew me as a regular customer. As soon as I sat down, he approached my table with my usual order—a bowl of special beef mami and special siopao. A complimentary bowl of broth was added, which was a plus for me since it was like having two bowls of mami. It was a much-anticipated meal at the end of a noon walk through the old districts of Manila. 

Mami and siopao are the country’s earliest fast-food snacks. We were entwining noodles on forks and munching steamed meat-filled bread even before fast-food burgers, spaghetti, French fries, and fried chicken became part of the Filipino everyday cuisine. One man is credited for “inventing” the mami and making it a part of today’s Filipino food lifestyle: Ma Mon Luk.

Ma’s story in starting and marketing what would become popular local food products was a long, hard journey that began in Canton, China. He was a poor schoolteacher who wanted to marry his sweetheart, Ng Shih, a daughter from a rich family. When her parents turned down his proposal, he vowed that he would leave his country, make a name for himself, become rich, then come back to claim her as his bride.

Ma came to the Philippines in 1918. He immediately looked for a way to make a living. Then he had an idea—he would sell noodles.

But he had to add a twist to his planned food fare. Noodles were sold on the street since the Spanish colonial period by Chinese ambulant vendors called chanchauleros. The noodles were called pansit by the locals. They were made of rice and wheat flour, sautéed, and served with shredded pork and vegetables.

Ma continued this food tradition but experimented by serving the noodles with chicken broth. It was a one-man task. He kneaded and stretched the noodles, boiled the broth, and cut the chicken meat himself. He then loaded food, bowls, and utensils into two large metal cans which he hung on each end of a pingga—a long bamboo pole used to carry objects on one’s shoulders. The broth was kept hot by live coals in a tiny stove placed inside one of the cans.

Ma called his dish gupit because of the way he served it—he held the noodles up high over a bowl then, using a pair of scissors, cut it depending on how much his customer wanted or paid. Broth was ladled in with chicken meat. Thirty centavos worth of gupit was already a big meal.

He hawked his food along the streets of Sta. Cruz and Binondo, where his customers were mostly students, office workers, and ordinary pedestrians. He easily had a clientele because his merienda was so different in taste and presentation from the popular American cuisine of that time.

One does not just sit down and start slurping down mami noodles and munching siopao. Each customer has his own pre-eating ritual. The sweet, brown asado siopao sauce isn’t just for the siopao. One squirts the sauce from a plastic squeeze bottle into the mami for a sweetish-tasting broth or on the noodles for a sweet, chewy bite with a tinge of saltiness. No chopsticks here. Even though the restaurant sign and the plastic signboard menu have Chinese symbols on it, it is Filipino dining with spoon and fork or the hands (if one just likes to eat siopao). My ritual consists of a squeeze of calamansi juice into the broth, a dash of pepper, and soy sauce into the mami. Then peeling the dry outer layer of the siopao and removing the paper stuck underneath. The tip of the plastic squeeze bottle is then poked into the soft bread and asado sauce is “injected” until it oozes out of some holes in the siopao.

A customer soon offered Ma a space on Tomas Pinpin Street in Binondo. It was a two-table affair enough to accommodate only a few customers. But Ma was happy. His patrons still went to his small restaurant.

By this time, gupit was known by a different name. It was said that the new name—mami—was a combination of his name Ma (which meant “horse” in Chinese) and mi, meaning noodles. Unfortunately, Ma did not have the word patented. Soon, imitation noodle soups sprouted with a name that was, personally, Ma’s own.

Ma’s hard work and perseverance paid off. He became rich, returned to China, and claimed Ng Shih’s hand. They married in the Philippines and their union produced four children—William, Robert, Irene, and George. With his success, Ma acquired properties. He built his house along Quezon Avenue, where the restaurant’s main branch and the office of the Ma Mon Luk International Corporation Company are located today.

The first Ma Mon Luk Restaurant opened on Salazar Street in Binondo. Here, Ma added siopao and siomai to the mami fare. Soon, word spread about his delicious food and diners flocked to his restaurant. In 1948, he opened another branch on Azcarraga Street (now C.M. Recto Avenue) near the corner of Avenida Rizal. Two years later, Ma moved the restaurant to Quezon Boulevard in Quiapo near the Life Theater where it still exists today.

But opening restaurant branches wasn’t enough for Ma. He made sure that his mami and siopao would be famous in Manila. He literally became a one-man walking advertising firm. He gave and fed siopao to everyone, from the lowliest man on the street to the Presidents of the country. At night, he walked the streets carrying bags of siopao and offered the food from house to house, saying, “Ma Mon Luk. Just remember the name: Ma Mon Luk.”

National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José remembers Ma’s visits with the bags of siopao at the pre-martial law Manila Times offices on Florentino Torres Street in Sta. Cruz. When he saw that there wasn’t enough siopao for everybody, Ma signed pieces of paper or his calling cards and distributed them, saying that his signature meant a free bowl of mami at the restaurant. This tradition of calling cards as Ma Mon Luk meal tickets is still being done by his sons today.

Ma’s efforts to popularize his restaurant paid off. Ma Mon Luk soon became the word for mami and siopao in the city.

I usually finish the broth first. Then I’d pour the complimentary broth into the half-empty bowl and treat myself to what is equivalent to another bowl of mami. Then I’d eat the noodles with a few squirts of asado sauce on top. Then I’d bite into the siopao, revealing a brown cavity stuffed tightly with shredded meat and a salted egg. Each bite would mean one squirt of asado sauce. Bite, squirt. Bite, squirt. Until the last bite is chewed down. My eating style, of course, is just one of a few that customers have adapted for Ma Mon Luk food. Some eat the siopao first. Some would eat both siopao and mami at the same time. All have the same objective: to finish the delicious food down to the last bite. No customer leaves Ma Mon Luk unsatisfied.

What was the secret of Ma Mon Luk’s mami and siopao? It was just sticking to the ingredients and original recipe that he brought from China and eventually passed down to his sons. One of the “secrets” was Ma’s strict rule of cutting the chicken: No knives. Just scissors so the juices of the chicken are not squeezed out, which happens when a knife’s blade is pushed down to slice the meat.

A typical day of preparation at the restaurant meant making the noodles and siopao at night until 5 a.m the next day. At around 8 a.m., the siopao are then placed in the bamboo streamers to cook, ready to be served once the place opens at nine.

There used to be several branches of Ma Mon Luk restaurants. But the siblings decided to migrate abroad. Some of the restaurants were closed down. Only the Quiapo and Quezon City branches remain.

A Ma Mon Luk restaurant is never air-conditioned. Ceiling fans cool the place. There is a reason for this: loyal customers believed that cold air affects the taste of the mami. There once was an air-conditioned branch in Pasay but no customers came in. It was only when George decided to remove the air-conditioning that the place filled up with diners.

Look at the far wall above the kitchen and you will see a painting of Ma. It is a common fixture in the Ma Mon Luk branches. He is formally dressed, smiling as he looks down at the dining hall where loyal customers eat his fare. There are only two menus in the Quiapo branch and both of them are hanging on the walls opposite each other. Each lists five different kinds of mami (regular, special, beef, beef wonton, and wonton) and two kinds of siopao (regular and special). There are two kinds of filled bread (pao)—Sang Yuk (Bola-Bola) and Taw Sa (Mongo). And, of course, only one kind of siomai.

The marble-topped tables and wooden chairs are considered antiques today. They have withstood the tests of time and thousands of customers who have dined here. A high wooden counter is near the entrance—the kind one can only see now in the old restaurants of Quiapo. The kitchen is visible from the dining area. A low wooden counter and shelf where bowl after bowl of mami noodles are served after the broth is ladled from a huge iron pot in one corner partially hidden from view by stacks of steamer trays containing siopao. On a good day, half of these stacks would already be empty by lunchtime.

There had been problems of product imitations. A storeowner once claimed that he was the supplier of the noodles to the Ma Mon Luk restaurants. The Mas disavowed this claim, saying that all their noodles are made fresh by their cooks every day in their restaurants. There was also the claim that a popular siopao and mami house was run by a relative of Ma’s. But this was repudiated by customers who know the family.

There was one thing Ma was remembered for more than his food. It was his kind-heartedness and generosity. He was always at the forefront of charities and gave immediate assistance to victims of national disasters. He donated rice, flour, clothes, milk, cash and, of course, siopao. He always extended a helping hand to his employees. He treasured friendships with ordinary people and those in a position of power. F. Sionil José remembers a visit to former President Elpidio Quirino in the latter’s Novaliches resthouse where he was living after his presidency, abandoned by the “friends” he made during his term. During his visit, José was surprised to see Ma walking out the house. When he talked to Quirino, the former president tearfully told José that Ma was the only person who continued to see him even though he was no longer in power.

But Ma had a vice that eventually led to his untimely death. He was a heavy smoker, and was shown holding a cigarette in many of his pictures. A nagging cough and an itchy throat led to a diagnosis of advanced stage throat cancer. He was confined at the Manila Sanitarium in Pasay for treatment but it was too late. Ma Mon Luk died on September 1, 1961 at the age of 65.

After his death, his sons took over the business and expanded it. In 1988, the Ma Mon Luk Restaurant was organized into a food corporation—the Ma Mon Luk International Corporation with Robert as its president and George vice-president and general manager. Their listed food specialty? Mami and siopao.

Ma’s legacy lives on.

This article was originally published in Rogue, April 2017.