March 22, 2019 § Leave a comment
A peninsula blessed with pink and white sand beaches,
bird sanctuaries, open seas, historical sites, beautiful parks, and abundant marine life;
a culture influenced by the Chinese merchants, Tausug traders, and Christian migrants from the Visayas and neighboring Mindanao provinces. Truly a melting pot that turned out a cuisine that is rich in flavor and texture.
And despite the negative news that surrounds this beautiful island, I never felt any sense of perilousness during my visit. Zamboanga will delight your senses.
Curacha at Alavar’s
Our first meal after a very delayed arrival was at Zamboanga’s iconic Alavar’s Seafood Restaurant. Because you cannot be in Zamboanga and not have curacha smothered in its trademark Alavar Sauce. What is curacha?
It’s a giant deep-sea crab that is uniquely found only in the waters of Zamboanga. It is a hybrid crustacean with sea crabs and spiny lobster characteristic. Lots of meat mostly found in its massive and tough shell. And of course, the secret is always in the sauce – sweet, aromatic with a hint of curry. Made from coconut milk and their secret spices, this sauce was the culprit to my loving anything with coconut milk.
Besides curacha, this beautiful plate of imbao wowed us as well. These are clams found in the mangroves of Zamboanga. Simple but so flavorful, this dish was baked in garlic and butter.
And before we move on, Alavar’s bagoong gata is a winner. It is just that – no explanation needed. Super with green mangoes.
Alavar's Seafood House: Don Alfaro St., Tetuan
Tausug is part of the broader political identity of Muslims in Mindanao. They live primarily in the Sulu Archipelago, southwest of the island of Mindanao, mainly in the Jolo island cluster. Being so close to Malaysia and that fact that they were not fully occupied by the Spaniards, Tausug cuisine has maintained its Malay origins and appears to be a combination of indigenous and Malaysian influences. They use ingredients like turmeric, lemongrass, langawas (a kind of ginger), chilis like sambal and a paste very similar to the Malaysian prawn paste, belachan.
It is particularly rich because of the heavy use of coconut milk and has many rice cake specialties.
Looks like dinuguan but taste like beef soup. The Tausog dish is made from either beef or chicken, its broth flavored with ginger, turmeric, and what made the soup black, burnt coconut meat.
Don’t let the color turn you off because this, my friends, is so good! A chicken dish made of the same burnt coconut meat of Tiulah Itum and coconut milk. A must try. So popular that you can even find it in pizzas.
Least of my favorite. This is beef liver cooked in coconut milk and burnt coconut meat.
Similar to beef curry cooked in coconut milk and peanut butter. This can be a dish the encompasses the cultures in the island of Mindanao, a meal enjoyed and prepared by both Muslims and Christians alike.
Freshly cooked native pastries collectively call Bangbang Sug – indigenous fritters, cakes, and pastries, that originated from the Sulu archipelago.
Many are made from coconut and rice, and much attention and details are put into making them. Here are some that we’ve tasted:
Also known as Zamboanga rolls, Jaa… A crunchy, golden brown delicacy produced and served during special occasions, especially during Hari Raya or the feast of the Eid al Fitr – which celebrates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
It is comparable to a crepe but with sweet coconut filling.
Fried bananas served with a sweet coconut dip.
Purple colored balls made of rice and covered with coconut shavings
Sulu’s version of a pancake
It’s a pastry molded into decorative shapes, a delicacy also served during Hari Raya.
An empanada stuffed with togue served with sweet, spicy sauce.
Biyaki and Jualan Saing
Steamed corn with grated coconut wrapped in cornhusks. Hands down my favorite.
Where to find these?
Dennis Coffee Garden: Popular for its brewed coffee but they also serve traditional Tausug pastries and dishes.
Dennis Coffee Garden: Labuan-Limpapa National Rd.
There are more to explore, and a need to return is a must. Many would perhaps ask if it is indeed safe to be exploring this part of the Philippines. Touristy areas are usually safe and well guarded. My advice is to always err on the side of caution and your comfort level. Always check with the local municipal office or tourism offices for guidance. Trips to The Greater Santa Cruz Island and Once Islas has to be coordinated and registered with the Philippine Tourist Authority.