Iloilo is the center of the universe

Published October 30, 2020, 10:04 AM

by Jules Vivas

At least for now, with Rabiya Mateo’s win shining its spotlight on this charming province

ABOVE THE CLOUDS An aerial view of Iloilo City

A complex organ and an even more profound symbol, the heart is what keeps the body running, the source of energy, the seat of the soul, and the wellspring of love. Kapuoran sang Iloilo is currently known as the “heart of the Philippines,” not only for its geography, nestled at the bosom of the archipelago, but also since it is among the main urban centers of the country. Currently, all eyes are on the province with the recent coronation of Rabiya Mateo as Miss Universe Philippines. Before this victory, however, Iloilo has always been regarded as one of the most important provinces, considering its rich culture and economical activities. Merchants from India and China have long traded with the Ilonggos before Spanish colonialism, and it remained a vital trading post even during the Spanish and American colonial periods. 

THE NEW QUEEN Rabiya Mateo wearing the crown called “Filipina” (Photo by Miss Universe Philippines 2020)

Because of its beautiful harbor and serene waters, which are perfect for safe navigation, Iloilo is home to an excellent port facility making it the center of trade. As a matter of fact, the entire world has been doing business in these ports, especially in the heyday of the sugar industry. While Manila is the capital city, Iloilo is dubbed the “Queen City of the South.” Another title is “Province of Festivals,” for its vast heritage showcasing multifarious festivities, including Dinagyang, which has recently been hailed as world-class.

BEACH PERFECT Cabugao Gamay Island, the most photographed island of Islas de Gigantes

These are only the tip of the iceberg. There are so many reasons the province is such a huge success. Here are some of the things that should make anyone fall in love with Iloilo.

Places to visit

Iloilo may be a fast-developing province, but it did a great job in keeping its old charm and unspoiled environment as it grows. It is a gateway to the Western Visayan region—a stopover for tourists heading to the beaches of Palawan and Boracay, as well as the nearby provinces of Guimaras, Antique, Capiz, and Aklan. Of course, Iloilo is blessed with islands and islets that could rival the aforementioned beaches, one of which is the Islas de Gigantes or Gigantes Islands.

HEAVEN’S GATE The peak of Garin Farm Pilgrimage

Meanwhile, the Garin Farm in San Joaquin is a scenic spot that marries entertainment and religion with its pilgrimage site and multitude of recreational activities like kayaking, swimming, fishing, and zipline. Standing at the zenith of a hill is a majestic white cross that can be reached through a 456-step staircase.

TAKE ME TO CHURCH The Molo church façade

The province is also filled with historical and ancestral homes that give tourists a glimpse of the wealthy families who lived there back in the day, and the centuries-old churches, which have withstood the test of time and natural disasters. One of the most notable churches is the Molo Church otherwise known as the “female church.” It is a national landmark along San Pedro Street in Iloilo city, with exterior walls made of white coral rock. Adjacent to the church is the Molo Plaza that houses statues of Greek deities. Jaro Cathedral, on the other hand, is called the “male church,” one of the oldest churches in Iloilo.

WHITE HOUSE The Molo Mansion, a historic home in a picturesque locale

Yusay-Consing Mansion or the Molo Mansion is a prominent heritage attraction that once belonged to a noble and wealthy family in Iloilo. Tourists would marvel at the fine details of this Filipino colonial architecture erected in the 1920s.

Kapuoran sang Iloilo is currently known as the ‘heart of the Philippines,’ not only for its geography, nestled at the bosom of the archipelago, but also since it is among the main urban centers of the country

There are so many places to go to in Iloilo that it merits a separate story.

The happy breed

Ilonggos are known to be malambing (affectionate). Their manner of speaking, in particular, reflects their gentle side. They always sound like they are crooning a love song. Even when cussing, they speak with a distinctive lilting intonation. You won’t be able to tell if they are mad. Aside from being sweet, they are amazing hosts as well, having a sense of over familiarity with others, and going the extra mile just to make guests comfortable and well-fed.

Not only are they beautiful inside and out, the Ilonggos are smart and talented people as well. There is a long, long list of movers and achievers who hail from Iloilo such as film director and historian Nick Deocampo, National Artist for literature Ramon Muzones, father of Philippine Christmas music Jose Mari Chan, world-renowned singer Lea Salonga, visual artist Romeo Tabuena, champion of Ilonggo cuisine Chef Rafael jr. “Tibong” Jardeleza, and news anchor Karen Davila among others. Let’s not forget Miss Universe Philippines 2020 Rabiya Mateo, and the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, whom she mentions as the person she would like to be on a peso bill in the question-and-answer segment of the pageant.

Kaon ta (Let’s eat)!

Various provinces claim and have been competing for the position of being the food capital of the Philippines. Perhaps among the closest to realizing this assertion is Iloilo. It might as well be the soup capital of the country, taking into account the abundance in kaldo (broth) dishes, which whet the appetite and sooth the soul.

NOODLE CABOODLE La Paz Batchoy (Photo from DOT)

For one, there is the noodle soup made with pork offal, crushed pork cracklings or crispy pork skin, chicken stock, beef loin, and round egg noodles called miki, the La Paz Batchoy. Authentic batchoy comes from La Paz Public Market, where the dish is believed to have been born. There, one may (and should) try Deco’s, Popoy’s, and Netong’s La Paz Batchoy. The secret to the hearty dish is in the broth made from buto-buto, which is slow-cooked for hours with beef and pork meat, and bulalo (shanks and bone marrow) mixed with local guinamos (shrimp paste) as flavoring. Do not forget to pair it with puto (rice cake) and soft drinks as panulak (beverage).

The Pancit Molo or Filipino pork dumpling soup is another dish conceived in Iloilo, specifically in the district of Molo. It is composed of a mixture of ground pork wrapped in molo or wonton wrapper, shredded chicken meat, and also shrimps. Before it commercially expanded, Kap Ising’s has the tastiest homemade molo balls in savory soup that linger in the mouth.

Another Western Visayan specialty is Binakol, a soup dish made from chicken cooked in coconut water with grated coconut, green papaya or chayote, leafy vegetables, garlic, onion, ginger, lemongrass, and patis (fish sauce). It was traditionally cooked inside bamboo tubes or directly on halved coconut shells. The dish may have originated from Aklan, but it is very prominent in Iloilo. There is a tinge sweetness coming from the ingredients, and the taste can be likened to a zestier tinola.

BEST BROTH The energy soup, Salam-Ukan (photo by Lafang Salam-Ukan)

Last, but definitely not the least, is Iloilo’s best kept secret: The Salam-Ukan—which translates to nabulunan in Filipino or to choke in English—a nilaga (stew) from a restaurant of the same name, only found in Iloilo. Located on an unnamed street side street in San Agustin, the quaint eatery is normally manned by its owner Boyet Susvilla. True to its name, mabubulunan ka sa sarap (it’s so delicious you would choke) once you have a taste. The broth was made to energize those that consume it. Akin to gotong Batangas, the Salam-Ukan is an innards soup, but instead of using beef, carabao meat and laman-loob (entrails) are utilized. Another similarity is that the meat is boiled for four whole hours, enriched with lemon, lemongrass, a big, bold red hot chili in every serving, and a secret mix of five herbs, which not a single soul knows about except for Boyet. The manlalaga (stew-maker) came upon the wonder broth at a makeshift kitchen and table in a bangketa (sidewalk) in Iloilo City on Nov. 8, 2013, amid the onslaught of Typhoon Yolanda. Due to the storm, his cook did not make it to work, so Boyet clumsily tried to cook on his own, getting directions from his staff via a phone call. By accident, he spills his Mountain Dew into a bowl of soup, where he also added lemon and lemongrass, and the rest was history.

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The bowl of carabao’s small intestine, heart, litid (tendons), towel, and honeycomb is pure magic. It packs a powerful zesty punch and deep savory flavor. Once you’ve tried the Salam-Ukan, you will never have soup the same way again.

Other dishes to try (that are solid) are Roberto’s siopao, seafood from the go-to restaurant Breakthrough, particularly the talaba (oyster), and Rafael’s La Cocina Del Sur squid ink paella and callos.