Weekend reading: The simple pleasures of Iloilo

Published December 6, 2020, 4:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

Photos by Jules Vivas

LUNCH AT ST. MARTHA’S From left: Chef Angelo Comsti, the author, MB content producer Jules Vivas, Chef Francis Lim, Chef Kalel Chan, and Richmonde Hotel Iloilo GM Natalie Lim

Sometimes we travel far and wide in search of something, only to arrive at it where we travel from. I believe I am paraphrasing Paolo Coelho or otherwise summing up his novel The Alchemist.

Last weekend, I was in Iloilo, only my second trip out of Manila, where since March I’ve been cooped up on account of the pandemic. Although a few vaccines are promising to put a stop to this nine-month-long disaster, we are no way safer from the coronavirus now than we were in March. The only difference is now we have mustered enough boldness to attempt a return to some semblance of normalcy.

DEGUSTACION A LA CARINDERIA Half of the spread from our lunch at St. Martha’s

In Iloilo City, everything seems normal at a glance. The borders are open to tourists with minimum safety precautions—a medical certificate declaring you are fit to travel instead of a swab test, provided you are to stay no more than seven days within the city, along with barangay clearance, an acceptance/invitation letter from the LGU, and contact tracing measures. 

The Richmonde Hotel Iloilo, never once a quarantine facility, welcomes tourists and staycationers and its flagship restaurant, The Granary, is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

VALUE FOR MONEY The bill in St. Martha’s for 28 servings of ulam, three platters of rice, and drinks amount to a little over a thousand pesos

There is no curfew. “What for?” said Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas as we sat down with him for lunch over freshly caught lobster served sashimi-style, sea mantis oozing with roe, raw oysters, and creamy grilled managat, a variety of snapper, at Iloilo’s go-to seafood haunt Breakthrough in Villa/Arevalo. It makes sense, though, as the virus is no more dangerous at night than it is in the daytime, and some economic activities, such as fishing or wholesale deliveries, are best conducted in the unholy hours.

The public markets are bustling. Our host, my friend Tibong Jardeleza Jr., Iloilo’s most committed chef, took us to the Iloilo Central Market for a bowl of Popoy’s batchoy and, passing through the dried fish section, I was surprised to see the stalls teeming with a bounty of guinamos, dried squid, danggit or salted rabbitfish, anchovies, labahita or surgeonfish, even tocino salmonete or cured red mullet.

PALENGKEATS Popoy’s Batchoy at Iloilo Central Market

We also went to La Paz Public Market to eat halo halo at a hole in the wall. Served in a bowl, rather than a glass, and topped with leche flan, with frosted cornflakes thrown in for a refreshing crunch, the iced delicacy sure made us forget any crisis, even this pandemic, especially as we paired it with a roll of ube brazo de Mercedes oozing with real halaya, which we bought from a corner bakery in the public market. After the halo halo, we went to Deco’s for our second batchoy for the day. In Tibong’s circle of foodies and famous chefs, such as Angelo ComstiFrancis Lim, and Kalel Chan on this trip and Chele GonzalezIge RamosJosh BoutwoodMargarita ForesMichaela FenixSandy Daza, and others on previous trips, the battle of the batchoys is always between Deco’s and Popoy’s.

Albeit with masks and shields, armed with alcohol sprays and hand sanitizers, the Ilonggos are up and about, the streets are abuzz with barbecue stalls and all manner of vendors peddling delicacies such as bibingka, pulot, and other edible curiosities.

Albeit with masks and shields, armed with alcohol sprays and hand sanitizers, the Ilonggos are up and about, the streets are abuzz with barbecue stalls and all manner of vendors peddling delicacies such as bibingka, pulot, and other edible curiosities.

The restaurants are full to overbooked (that we were shooed away from one), and it seems that eating out has been uninterrupted in this city, the pandemic notwithstanding. 

BATCHOY LANE A section in the La Paz market where various iconic La Paz batchoy food establishments converge

Our first stop, soon after our morning flight landed, was at St. Martha’s. I didn’t think it was operational, it being a turo-turo, but I was surprised that, in fact, the pandemic has made the eatery look even better, cleaner, more spacious, replete with acrylic barriers for extra safety. I would always go for the same things whenever at St. Martha’s, so served on the table were the usual—adobo nga takway or the tendrils of a particular variety of taro, tambo or bamboo shoots with okra and takway in coconut milk, laswa or a soup cooked with seasonal vegetables, pata ng baka or beef knuckles, the fat glutinous, in a soup, and gusok with alugbati or pork ribs with malabar. Every visit, though, I always have a new discovery. This time, it was the pinamalhan nga lupoy, a simple paksiw or fish stewed in vinegar, but the fish this time were fingerlings of sardinella and extremely flavorful.

I’d say that St. Martha is my favorite spot in all of Iloilo because it is a consistent source of pleasure. The food is malasa, to use a Tagalog word whose English translation does not quite cut it, and not from salt or soy sauce or vinegar or pepper, but from the natural flavors of the main ingredients. This, I think, is the secret to Iloilo cooking: They let the ingredients shine. Also, food at St. Martha is served in small plates, like tapas, just the way I like it. A small plate can come as cheap as 35 or even less.

Breakthrough, way more pricey, is another constant in my Iloilo itinerary. I’ve already mentioned earlier what I had there on this trip, though I should have included the abalone cooked in coconut cream and the “Munding,” duck steamed in its own juices with some tamarind.

MEETING BREAKTHROUGH Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas and the author

Other must-tries on any Iloilo food crawl, such as ours, were the siopao at Roberto’s, which by the way is the one restaurant closed for dine in, so we ordered our siopao and ate it the plaza nearby, Tatoy’s Native Chicken, where I always end up eating with my bare hands, the better to pick the lean meat off the bones, classic ensaimada at the Granary with coffee, the galletas and the rosquetas at Panaderia de Molo, Maridel’s guava cake, and chicken barbecue at Fort ni San Pedro, picked clean off the stick al fresco, on the bank of the Iloilo River.

The only thing forbidden in Iloilo right now is the drink. And Mayor Treñas was unperturbed by our appeals, as we tried to entreat him to let us have our wine with our meat or beer with our inasal. “Not a drinking session, just a proper meal,” we pleaded, to which, resolutely and without wavering, he replied, “No! No! No! If you want to drink, do it at home or in the comforts of your hotel room.” Group drinking isn’t allowed either. On the alcohol ban, the mayor is firm. He shared that he had his own niece’s establishment shuttered due to some alcohol-related violation.

Of course, the raison-d’etre of our trip was the 7th Tabu-an Western Visayas Heritage Ilonggo Cooking Competition, Tibong’s brainchild, on which, since 2014, he has been collaborating with the Department of Tourism-Region VI, particularly its regional director Helen Catalbas. The aim of the competition is to educate the next generation of cooks and chefs on Iloilo’s rich culinary heritage and to encourage them to preserve, promote, and advance the cuisine.

FLAVORFUL TO THE BONE Fried chicken from Tatoy’s Manukan and Seafood Restaurant

Held at the fountain court of the south wing of SM City Iloilo, an outdoor park, in keeping with pandemic protocols, it was literally a fiesta, with six head chefs, each leading a group in the competition, whipping up entries for the appetizer, main dish, and dessert categories based on the ingredients spread on a long table from which each group was challenged to come up with a three-course menu and only two hours to prepare the dishes. The winning entries, based on creativity and presentation, as well as techniques and flavors, were Ensaladang Puso ng Saging sa Gata (banana heart salad in coconut dressing) for starters, Estofadong Itik (duck ragout) for the main dish, and Mango Tablea Ice Cream with Ilonggo Buco Bibingka (mango chocolate ice cream with baked rice cake with coconut).

MAX DISTANCING The spacious grounds of SM City Iloilo Southpoint where the competition was held

The competition was the culmination of our four-day/three-night stay in Iloilo, but as if a whole afternoon of tasting was not enough, we wrapped it up with a barbecue dinner on the pool deck of the Richmonde Hotel Iloilo. The dinner was worthy of a main event, with kebabs, diwal or angel wing clams, grilled shrimp and crabs, off-season Guimaras mangoes that were unsurprisingly sweet and juicy, and of course good company.

BEST APPETIZER Ensaladang Puso ng Saging sa Gata

Now I’m back in Manila, fully aware again of the pandemic that has yet to go away. But my appetite is back and all that eating in Iloilo may sustain me enough to last until a vaccine is finally available to put this nightmare behind us.

Meanwhile, I’ll look for my joy in food. I’ll travel by way of food. I’m so glad the pandemic has not canceled our constant search for something to eat, not just to survive, but to enjoy and to live fully.