Riding on tradition, this year’s Tabu-an: Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition was as delightful as its past editions
Photos by the author
In the Philippines, only a handful of cooking tournaments can match the prestige and consistency of the Tabu-an: Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition. The event, which is religiously held every November, promotes both the culinary and gastronomic riches of Iloilo or other provinces in Western Visayas, such as Capiz last year, when Tabu-an was held in the capital, Roxas City. As the root word tabu meaning “to meet” suggests, chefs of the Food Haven of the Philippines are pitted against each other in a fiery but healthy cook off.
Despite the pandemic, this year’s Tabu-an, the seventh installment since it was first held six years ago, was a resounding success, even with all the safety and health precautions in place.
On Nov. 29, Tabu-an was kicked off at the fountain court of SM City Iloilo Southpoint—the first time the contest was held on the grounds of the mall, an outdoors space in keeping with protocols. This was also the first time since the health crisis that Manileño chefs traveled to the Western Visayan province.
As the root word tabu meaning ‘to meet’ suggests, chefs of the Food Haven of the Philippines are pitted against each other in a fiery but healthy cook off.
As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” Founder and organizer of the Tabu-an, Rafael Jardaleza Jr., Chef Tibong, relentless in advocating Ilonggo cuisine and culture, did not let the pandemic break the cooking party. He invited renowned chefs from Manila over to judge in the cooking competition. He believes that by so doing, he is able to relay the essence and taste of Ilonggo food properly to these culinary experts, whom he handpicks every year on account of their devotion to exploring, discovering, and championing ingredients and techniques unique to any of the Philippines’ many regions. The guest chefs, having experienced Iloilo firsthand, would then be moved to incorporate what they learned in the province in their own styles as well as to influence others to support Ilonggo practices, ingredients, and dishes.
For the recently concluded cooking competition the Manila arbiters of taste, simply put, the panel of judges, were chefs Francis Lim, Kalel Chan, and Angelo Comsti. Chef Francis is a food consultant, and the F&B director and chef at Tipple and Slaw as well as Nav Thai restaurants. Meanwhile, Chef Kalel is the corporate chef of Raintree restaurants, which include such brands as Providore Manila and Cebu, Saboten Philippines, and Cha Cha’s Beach Cafe in Boracay. He is also a consultant to Nutriasia, Del Monte, Osaka Ohsho, and Bird House. The chief judge was prolific food writer and bestselling cookbook author Angelo Comsti. Apart from being a well-known food journalist, Chef Angelo has authored five chart-topping cookbooks sold worldwide. His latest, Also Filipino, features regional dishes, including Iloilo’s laswa and linatik na kalabasa.
Similar to the previous Tabu-ans, competing teams were composed of professional and amateur cooks as well as students and Ilonggo heritage culinary enthusiasts. Six teams of three members each, made up of a head chef and two assistants, took on the challenge of preparing a basic full course meal consisting of an appetizer, a main dish, and dessert, which should showcase the flair of the Iloilo kitchen. “The aim of Tabu-an is to preserve heritage cuisine. The chefs should be faithful to the traditional taste and techniques of Iloilo cooking,” explains Chef Tibong. As an added challenge, the teams were to think up their menus on the spot, upon the presentation of surprise ingredients on a table laden with assorted seafood and meats, including cow’s tongue, seasonal fruits and vegetables like batwan and takway or taro shoots, and other staples in the Iloilo kitchen like guinamos, tuba, and muscovado. Once decided on their three-course menu, they were given just a little over two hours to present the dishes to the panel of judges for tasting.
In the criteria for judging, the traditional taste and overall presentation were the biggest factor with 35 percent. These main winning points were followed by the clever use of local and homegrown ingredients and condiments for 30 percent. Creativity and visual appearance made up 20 percent, while the least scored aspect was the mise en place or food preparation.
Another constant in Tabu-an is the coveted, handmade trophies designed by Chef Tibong. These impressive keepsakes were crafted in Pavia, a province of Iloilo, the pottery capital of the island of Panay. The true reward for joining the competition, however, is the distinction tied to being a part of such a reputable contest, and the invaluable learning experience one gets to take home from it, not to mention a recognized role in Chef Tibong’s personal advocacy to preserve, promote, and advance Iloilo cooking and eating.
Team five, formed by head chef Sharmaine Gutierez, Miko Gustillo, and Alphonse Dedel, won the best appetizer award after wowing the judges with their ensaladang puso ng saging. With deconstruction as their theme, they also took the second overall spot, having shown great creativity while staying true to the nature of subtle flavored Ilonggo cuisine. Another promising dish they made was the kansi or Ilonggo bulalo, which could have vied for best main if only the beef were more tender.
The stars of the competition were head chef Karl Jason Hibionada, Raffy Jay Hibionada, and Joshua Quema of team four. The group dominated the competition as they garnered all major awards, and the overall champion title. Their pulpo with inasal pasayan got them the second best in appetizer award, their pato na estofado was the best in main course, and the bibingka paired with mango tablea sorbetes was the best in dessert.
For starters, the pugita or squid was seared and sautéed in garlic, olive oil, and cherry tomatoes. The shrimp inasal was made Ilonggo style, sweet, even tocino-like. “I wanted the chefs to have a taste of Iloilo. That’s why I prepared the inasal, which is a very famous dish here,” Karl beams.
Team four’s pato estofado or duck stew was hearty and full-flavored—truly worthy of the top prize in the best main category. “The estofado here is different from Manila. Here we use tuba (coconut sap) vinegar, and muscovado, for a tangy and salty kind of estofado,” explained the 24-year-old chef.
“The bibingka here in Iloilo is not like rice cake. It’s more like custard with lots of buko strips,” says Karl. “I also made dirty ice cream or sorbetes from scratch using mango and Cabatuan tablea.” What the chefs thought was a very risky move paid off. The sorbetes that used cassava flour, churned manually for an hour, was the element team four succeeded in at the risk of taking more time than they were given to cement their victory. In fact, early in the competition, some of the guests and judges thought it was a bad call, too time-consuming and too much room for error, but team four proved them wrong.
Second team, Jairuss Jimenez, Kirt Gardose, and Saul Bañas, was second runner up with their inadobong takway, nilagpang nga isda, and Ilonggo suman latik.
The first step to improving the quality of food and cooking in the country is through the appreciation of local cuisine, all our original flavors and ingredients, and the way we eat. As Manila Bulletin lifestyle editor AA Patawaran puts it, “The world will discover the best of our food by learning to eat it our way, not theirs, because our way is what makes it more fun.”
Luckily events like the Tabu-an exist, thanks to the support of so many entities such as SM City Iloilo, J.S. Layson and Company, Inc., the local government of Iloilo City and Mayor Jerry Treñas, and most of all, the Department of Tourism region VI office through regional director Helen Catalbas. Other collaborators include Southwest Tours, Breakthrough Seafood Restaurant, 4k Avenue Solutions Corporation, Hercor College, Pepsi, Richmonde Hotel Iloilo, and the sole media partner, The Manila Bulletin.