Despite the pandemic, the Food Haven of the Philippines lives up to its new title with culinary victories left and right
Photos by the author.
Iloilo is known for its culinary treasures. Highlighted by La Paz batchoy and the pancit molo, Ilonggo fare has made an indelible mark in Filipino culture. But what makes food from Iloilo so great is the people behind them who work together in not only improving the craft but also preserving the heritage.
Just last month, the gastronomic hotspot was finally declared the “Food Haven of the Philippines” on paper, thanks to a resolution authored by city councilor Rudolph Jeffrey Ganzon as well as the efforts of culture and cuisine champion Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza Jr.—a fine example of collaboration advancing the culinary industry.
With each visit, the province grows closer to my heart and stomach. From the fantastic food to the hospitable, warm people, and even the landscape of the city itself, which could be described as a roomier Manila or like Hong Kong, everything about Iloilo is charming. There’s always a reason to go back to Iloilo.
Between October and late November, Chef Tibong would ceremoniously invite culinary experts and media practitioners from Manila to Iloilo for them to discover the wonders of Ilonggo cuisine as well as to share their own expertise. These Manileño guests are also introduced to either Sabores de Visayas, a grand dinner that highlights the rich culinary heritage of Western Visayas; the Ilonggo Night Market and Street Food Hawkers Festival, which is the more casual and “kanto” version of the former; or the Tabu-An Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition, pinning local talents in a healthy cook off focused on traditional methods and ingredients.
Health crisis or not, these events occur annually, as Chef Tibong would find ways to hold safer and equally meaningful iterations such as the 2021 “Sabores de Visayas gives back,” a benefit kitchen that fed over 1,200 essential health workers.
The eighth installment of the Tabu-An Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition recently concluded. Food writer and chief judge of the competition, Angelo Comsti, Manila Bulletin Lifestyle editor and “adopted Ilonggo” AA Patawaran, and I all agree that this year’s edition had the best dishes and competitors in the history of the contest. Even Chef Tibong affirms that “This batch of Tabuan contestants is the best so far,” he says. The judges include chefs Sandy Daza of Casa Daza, Don Baldosano of Linamnam, as well as the duo Thirdy Dolatre and Kevin Navoa of Hapag.
Each of the Western Visayan Islands from Antique to Aklan, Guimaras to Negros, and Bacolod to Iloilo were well-represented during the affair.
Out of the 10 contenders, team eight headed by Ariel Castañeda won the overall competition. Imagine how good his team was considering they emerged as the champion of the so-called best batch.
Chef Ariel realized his passion for cooking when he was young. He developed an appreciation for food because of his lola (grandmother) and parents who were cooks. “I took inspiration from them [parents and grandma]. I love Filipino food and Ilonggo cuisine in general. My exposure to food in the house and to home cooking helped me today,” says the Tabuan champion.
His Three-ways Oysters, which involved kinilaw, adobo, and baked oysters, bagged the best appetizer award. “The memory goes back to when me and my parents would usually go to the pond and harvest fresh oysters. We used to kinilaw or adobo these oysters. It was a staple for most people on the farm,” says Chef Ariel. “Beer lang at talaba solve na. (People at the farm find satisfaction from just oysters and beer). The simple lifestyle played a big part in my life.”
The main course, which also won the best award, was inspired by Chef Ariel’s 80-year-old “Nana” or guardian, who took care of him and his siblings when they were younger. “She [Nana] has this very good suman sa lihiya recipe. I tried copying a savory version of it,” he says. Team eight made an Ilonggo suman and prepared a chicken and pork inasal roulade infused with Ilonggo adobo sauce.
Meanwhile, for dessert, the reconstructed linugaw otherwise known as the binignit, a Visayan dessert soup, won third place. “I featured my hometown Tigbauan and its neglected ingredient, the kalamay sa buri (palm tree sugar). We thought of highlighting this [kalamay sa buri] because the new generation tends to forget about this ingredient,” says Chef Ariel. “It’s saddening that we don’t care about these concepts, which are slowly disappearing now in the food industry.”
He points out that people who make the kalamay sa buri and other indigenous ingredients continue to make products so they could be passed on to the younger generations. “I think it is our social responsibility as cooks and chefs to take care of them [indigenous ingredients and cuisines],” he says, citing the main idea of his chosen three courses. “Food is memory for us. We emphasized the taste and the feelings we associate with food.”
The 31-year-old chef from Jaro did not have formal culinary education. After graduating from college, he started as a banquet waiter and worked his way up to the kitchen, taking only a three-month crash course in culinary arts, after which he worked at several restaurants and hotels. Shortly after his victory at this competition, he was appointed executive chef at the Richmonde Hotel Iloilo.
Among his teammates were his mentor chef Dominic Dulalia, owner of the seasonal restaurant called D.O.M., and Joyce Pamin, owner of J3 Cakes&Pastries.
‘The group of chefs here in Iloilo has a unique bond. Despite the competition, we still find time to get together and support each other. The least that we can do is help out, and try to promote more of the neglected produce and heritage dishes.’
“I really appreciate Chef Tibong and all of his efforts in making Tabuan possible for every cook and chef in Iloilo. I’ll do my best to help him,” says Chef Ariel when asked about his plans. “The group of chefs here in Iloilo has a unique bond. Despite the competition, we still find time to get together and support each other. The least that we can do is help out, and try to promote more of the neglected produce and heritage dishes.”
This year’s Tabuan, held at SM City Iloilo South Point, was made possible by Chef Tibong with support from Councilor Rudolf Ganzon, the Department of Tourism (DOT) Region 6, Park Inn Radisson, the Manila Bulletin, and other sponsors.