Forgotten heirloom dishes win big at this year’s Tabu-An Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition

The story of Achilles Capuso and his Talunon, Kuyabog, and Calabasa Dulce de Leche

LECHON NGA TALUNON Clockwise from bottom: Pit-roasted wild boar served with lumpia nga ubod sang nyog and liver sauce

Iloilo celebrated various milestones in October, the first of which was the launch of Flavors of Iloilo, a collaborative product of the Ilonggo food community, the local government unit, the Western Visayas office of the Department of Agriculture (DA-6), Iloilo Festivals Foundation Inc. (IFFI), J.S. Layson & Co., and the cookbook’s author, Iloilo culinary and culture champion Rafael Jardaleza Jr., popularly known as Chef Tibong.

Shortly after the book release, the 100-day countdown to Dinagyang 2023 kicked off, revealing the physical return of the grandest Ilonggo fete, the Dinagyang Festival, a huge announcement what with the religious and cultural fiesta having been held strictly online for two years straight.

A few days later, the Tabu-An Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition, a battle of taste and tradition annually organized by Chef Tibong also concluded. For those who may not be familiar with Tabu-An—the termin Filipino translates to “meeting place”—it is a healthy cookout that gathers culinarians from all over the region to promote traditional cooking methods and the use of the local ingredients of Iloilo.

FOOD WARS This year's Tabu-An was held at the SM City Iloilo

This year, Team 5, headed by culinary instructor and food lover Achilles Capuso, is the overall champion, with a sweeping victory, topping all three categories, namely appetizer, main, and dessert.

For the ninth edition of Tabu-An, Achilles and his group, composed of co-educator Oscar Salazar III as well as students France Louise Necitos, Glecymar Tabares, and Randy Salvilla, went to represent the Western Institute of Technology (WIT) in Iloilo.

The 31-year-old chef, Achilles, has ceremoniously participated in behalf of the school every year, except during the height of the pandemic from 2020 to 2021, when he took his time off the contest. He was the champion of the competition in 2018, 2019, and this year.

Achilles focused on serving forgotten heirloom dishes that “not a lot of the younger generation Ilonggos are familiar with,” he explains. 

Appetizer was the Lechon nga Talunon, a whole suckling pig using a 45-day-old backyard-raised baboy talunon or wild boar. Pit-roasted for an hour and 30 minutes, the pork was cooked to tender, but with crunchy skin. The flavorful meat had an inherent sourness and savoriness. Its scent was also made enticing, thanks to the addition of local aromatics. The dish was complemented by a liver sauce and lumpia nga ubod sang nyog or spring rolls made from the heart of a palm tree.

BOAR ROAST Lechon nga Talunon close up

Kuyabog, the main course, was squab (baby pigeon) stuffed with chicken liver. Slow-fried, the meat is exceptionally juicy. It was served with a tuba reduction sauce, ensalada nga puso sang saging or banana blossom salad, and morisqueta tostada ala Valenciana or Spanish-style sinangag (fried rice) with sausage, vegetables, and other condiments.

‘We served some of the simplest dishes, which stuck to the point. If it’s kuyabog, it’s kuyabog. Lechon is lechon.’

Calabasa Dulce de Leche Quezo de Bola Cheesecake and Batwan Sorbetes Duo was the desert. Instead of the usual blueberry and strawberry toppings, squash was used to garnish the tart of Edam cheese. On the side was hand-churned ice cream of batuan fruit, sprinkled with cashew crisp.

MANUAL ROTARTY Achilles setting up the roasting of the talunon

When asked about his opinion on why his team prevailed, “We served some of the simplest dishes, which stuck to the point. If it’s kuyabog, it’s kuyabog. Lechon is lechon,” says the Capiz native.

Achilles, who was a scholar and a graduate of the International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management (ISCAHM), has been in the academe for eight years now. He also manages the American restaurant Basilico Café in Jaro, Iloilo.

SQUASH, CHEESE, AND BATUAN COMBO Calabasa Dulce de Leche Quezo de Bola Cheesecake and Batwan Sorbetes Duo

Other competitions won by WIT, with the help of Achilles, are the SM Culinary Fest and the Intercollegiate Cake Decorating Challenge (ICDC) of Goldilocks.

This year’s judges were food journalist, cookbook author, and consultant to many high-profile restaurants Angelo Comsti as the head judge, Bacolod celebrity chef Don Colmenares, corporate chef of the Raintree Restaurants group Kalel Chan, and Linamnam owner Chef Don Baldosano.

A constant in the contest is the criteria for judging, which are traditional taste, innovation, clever use of homegrown ingredients, creativity, and mise en place or food prep.

WINNER WINNER KUYABOG DINNER From left: Team 5, led by Achilles (middle), the overall champion of the competition being awarded by the judges on stage

The same handmade trophies designed by Chef Tibong and crafted from Pavia, the pottery capital of the island, were conferred on the winners. 

Tabu-An is supported by the Iloilo City LGU, SM City Iloilo, J.S. Layson & Co., Richmonde Hotel Iloilo, Park Inn Radisson Iloilo, Doña Elena, Pepsi, Yum Chow, Maridel’s Sweet’s Bakery, Deco’s, Breakthrough, and the sole media partner The Manila Bulletin.