Revitalizing the cuisine of the Obo Monuvu of Kidapawan

Published January 22, 2021, 8:30 PM

by Manila Bulletin

At Mindanao Art, this cuisine using ancient culinary traditions takes center stage 

By Karlo Antonio Galay David
Photos by EJ Fernandez

IMMORTAL FOOD Datu Hudson Bayawan smoking kusangus, and Obo Monuvu cuisine Dinugdug no Owsiya before ice cream is added

Monanam no kokaan, diid patoy—good food never dies.

That aphorism in the indigenous Obo Monuvu language has been proven recently when Datu Hudson Bayawan of Kidapawan prepared his tribe’s rich and delicious cuisine as the Curated Dinner for Mindanao Art 2020.

Held amid the global coronavirus pandemic, Mindanao Art used the internet and the latest Mindanawon technology to become one of the largest art fairs in Southeast Asia. Over two hundred artists from Mindanao exhibited almost a thousand art works in specially designed virtual museums by Davaoeño visionary architect Jon Traya.

When the fair and its limited physical exhibit was formally opened in Davao City in October, traditional Obo Monuvu cuisine was served as a curated dinner, entitled “Monanam: Revitalizing the Cuisine of the Obo Monuvu of Kidapawan.”

Chef and hunter Datu Hudson Bayawan of Balabag, Kidapawan was the dinner’s featured chef. The fifth-generation descendant of the legendary Apo Apao (who is believed to have been the first man to ever climb Mt. Apo), Datu Hudson belongs to the ancient clan in Kidapawan, North Cotabato, which calls the mountain their ancestral domain. As one of the tribe’s last hunters, he knows the mountain better than anyone else. He is the custodian of many elements of the Monuvu’s culinary traditions.

A TASTE OF KIDAPAWAN Clockwise from top Koringag, Opusow, Tovokay, Kusangus, Lahadda, Tohiya, Poriya (center)

Getting Datu Hudson from the highlands of his ancestors to Davao City was no easy feat during this pandemic. Travel restrictions meant what would usually be an easy two-hour trip was complicated by checkpoints and quarantine arrangements. But getting to Davao turned out to be the easy part, it was getting Datu Hudson back to Kidapawan from Davao—by then Mindanao’s Covid epicenter—that proved a challenge.

The Kusangus made by Datu Hudson, one of the last people who know how to make Kusangus, was the first batch to be made in over two decades.

Without any special arrangements, he would have to be quarantined for two weeks in Bulatukan, Makilala. That could lead him to lose his job. Datu Hudson’s entire village was damaged in the wake of the 2019 earthquakes that hit Southern Mindanao, and he and his family are still recovering from its devastation.

But with that indomitable strength typical of the Monuvu, and strictly following necessary health protocols, the 60-year-old was able to make his way to the fair’s gala venue in Davao City, bringing with him the ingredients and materials that make Obo Monuvu cuisine so unique.

One of the most remarkable of his ingredients is Kusangus, smoked meat. The art of smoking is an ancient form of preserving meat in interior Mindanao, and the smoking process—paired with upland Kidapawan’s cold but moist climate—impart on meat a distinct odor that makes it an acquired taste. This has made it a delicacy for the Monuvu, but the coming of settlers and of modern refrigeration has led to a gradual decline in its making. The Kusangus made by Datu Hudson, one of the last people who knows how to make Kusangus, was the first batch to be made in over two decades.

The Kusangus was cooked in the classic Monuvu cooking process called linutlut, or cooking in bamboo. In linutlut, food is stuffed into a piece of a specific kind of wild bamboo, selected with Datu Hudson’s expert eyes from Mt. Apo’s foothills, and carefully cooked over a fire in a process that takes years to master. Aside from Kusangus, chicken was also cooked in this way.

The Kusangus and the chicken were cooked with a unique combination of herbs and spices gathered wild from Mt. Apo, creating a flavor and aroma profile found nowhere else in the world.

THE DATU COOKS Datu Hudson Bayawan in the kitchen

There was lahadda, an indigenous form of scallion with a sweet nutty flavor that has been grown in Kidapawan since time immemorial. Lahadda’s cultivation has decreased since coloniality came to the Monuvu, but in recent years demand from Maguindanaons and Meranaws (who call it sakura) has led to more growers, in a beautiful sign of inter-ethnic harmony.

Then there was koringag, a variety of cinnamon wild to Mt. Apo. Mindanao’s cinnamon was historically an export product that once rivaled the highest quality cinnamon in Ceylon, but locals never developed its production, and its industry was soon neglected. In many ways, this fragrant bark represented Mindanao’s many lost opportunities, but in Datu Hudson’s hands at least, they reach their potential.

There was tovokay, the flower of the wild torch ginger, which imparted on food a pretty pink tinge and a light acidity. Torch ginger flowers are a common ingredient in Malay and Indonesian cuisines, but in Mindanao it seems only the Monuvu eat it. The wild population has seen a decline due to the boom of plantitos and plantitas, but Datu Hudson has already planted some in his land to ensure it survives.

The food was also flavored with tohiya, which in English is called lemon basil, an herb that grows wild on Mt. Apo. Tohiya has a fragrance slightly reminiscent of lemongrass. Datu Hudson also relates how its seeds are used by the Monuvu as a cure for cataracts.

These herbs were mixed with the Kusangus and the chicken before cooked lintulut. Some of the mixture was minced and mixed with shredded coconut meat to make another dish, Id Tadtad. The strong, indescribable odor of the Kusangus complemented with the distinct combination of aromas from these to create a unique culinary experience that could only be described as intense.

Datu Hudson also prepared another classic dish with a unique ingredient, Opusow nid Gotan.   Opusow (Schismatoglottis calyptrata) is a taro-like vegetable that grows wild in Mt. Apo’s stream banks. Datu Hudson cooked its shoots with coconut milk, Lahadda, tohiya, and some grilled dried fish to create a simple and relaxing soup that went delightfully with rice.

For dessert, Datu Hudson served one of Monuvu cuisine’s simplest but most formal of dishes, Dinugdug no Owsiya (boiled eddoes mashed with coconut meat and sugar). During gatherings of tribal elders and other formal events, this simple snack is usually served with homegrown coffee. But for Datu Hudson’s curated dinner, innovation took a sweet turn as the hot coffee was replaced with coffee ice cream to make Dinugdug no Owsiya ala Mode.

Datu Hudson was invited to cook Monuvu cuisine for Mindanao Art not only to showcase his tribe’s cuisine but also to help revive it. The fair’s theme, “Living Art in a New Landscape,” envisioned art not just as a decorative ornament, but as a lived experience, enriching daily lives and revitalizing traditions.

With Datu Hudson’s 2020 debut, the Monuvu have taken a large step forward into making sure this beautiful and delicious cuisine never dies. 

Datu Hudson Bayawan of Balabag and other tribal cooks can be booked to make traditional food for private occasions! If you want to experience authentic Obo Monuvu cuisine, email [email protected] for arrangements.