Iloilo loves to eat and that’s why it’s the best

But it's not the food, it's the people

ILONGGO HERITAGE CUISINE CHAMPION Chef Tibong Jardeleza at the 1930s heritage house Nelly Garden in Jaro (Noel Pabalate)

I might as well have been born in Iloilo. Or maybe not, lest I take it for granted like I take for granted Manila, where I was born and raised and where often I feel trapped, always looking out, wanting to be elsewhere.

I was in college when it was cool to be a McDonald’s crewmember. They were mostly college kids, and many of them were well-spoken and good-looking. McDonald’s itself was the place to be, the meeting place, where the burgers were cool, and the milkshakes were cooler, and we would meet there for Big Breakfast, which back then was literally big, before driving out of town for the weekend. Once, while waiting for my turn to place my order, the energetic crew behind the cashier counter and the college kids waiting in line behind me were shooting the bull in Ilonggo. I supposed they were from Bacolod, or they might have been from Iloilo. Either way, at the moment, as I eavesdropped on their conversation, although it was more like I was engulfed in it, lulled by the lilt in their voices, following the singsong rhythm of their consonants and vowels, I longed to speak a Filipino language other than Tagalog. My mother was from Bicol and, unlike my father, who was Kapampangan by origin but was exclusively Manileño, my mother, though she too had spent much of her adult life in Manila, was loyal to her Bicolano roots. So I could understand Bikolano, as it was spoken in Legaspi, where my mother was born, though I could hardly speak it.

It’s good. That simple. —Tibong Jardeleza

And right there, at McDonald’s, as these kids spoke in a mix of English, Tagalog, and Ilonggo, the third more pronounced, affecting the way they enunciated the words in the other two languages, I had a raging desire to speak like them, like an Ilonggo, though I thought I could practice it in a smattering of Bikolano and French, which I was then studying as a language elective (and which I would later spend five terms at Alliance Francaise trying—and failing—to master), as well as the few common expressions like hello and goodbye I was committing to memory in German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, even Yiddish.

CHARITY DRIVE Chef Tibong serving meals at the Sabores de Visayas Gives Back feeding program

That McDonald’s incident was in the late ‘80s and it was only in 2015, decades later, that I would set foot in Iloilo City for the first time. It was love at first bite, although it was only on the last day of my first visit, in the few hours I had left before my late-afternoon flight back to Manila, that the city endeared itself to me in a way that no other place in the Philippines, unless it had a beach or a mountain or a beautiful resort, had endeared me.

Again and again, I would give it to the Iloilo chef—and now my friend—Tibong Jardeleza for showing me the best of Iloilo. As a finale for my first Iloilo trip, I was taken for lunch to his out-of-the-way Spanish restaurant Rafael’s Cucina del Sur, tucked away on a leafy, lazy street in a residential village. Once he learned I was an Iloilo virgin, he whisked me off before dessert on a food tour, knowing I only had hours to spare before my flight took off. I have since been to Iloilo tens of times that I hardly remember how overwhelmed I must have been, as he took me to Roberto’s for the best siopao, the duck-steamed-in-its-own-juices called Mundings at Breakthrough, and Popoy’s batchoy, all in two hours or less.

I’ve always maintained that if only there were a Tibong Jardeleza in every city in the Philippines, I would be more of a patriot than Jose Rizal and, of course, there is a Tibong Jardeleza in every city in the Philippines—I just haven’t met them yet. Recently, I met a chef online from Pampanga and he said to me that, once this pandemic was over, he would take me on a Pampanga food tour, not unlike the dozens I’ve had in Iloilo, which I have shared generously on social.

In case anybody is looking for someone to emulate when it comes to promoting local food, what’s best about Tibong is that, although he had a restaurant of his own, he would take you to other people’s restaurants or carinderias or food stalls or holes in the wall. Even if, every trip, I would beg to have the callos and paella negra I had had at his restaurant, he would always prioritize “this batchoyan that you have yet to try,” “the porkchop in this bar, which is something else,” “this new pancit-molohan set up in a garage,” or “this ube brazo de Mercedes at La Paz.”

Yes, Iloilo’s main draw is its food, as well as its cooking style that lets out the natural flavors of myriad ingredients from its diverse topography, from highlands to lowlands, from lakes and rivers to seawaters, from plains to forests.

Now I am such a frequent visitor to Iloilo City. I have made so many friends I sometimes have the gall to call myself Iloilo’s adopted son. So now I realize that its true charm is its people, who love the city and the province in the way Manileños don’t always love Manila. Not very keen on appearances, they go for the real thing, like they want their food good, not fancy. Oh and they love to eat and “the people who love to eat are always the best people,” was it Julia Child who said that?