By CJ Juntereal
Sometimes the best way to learn about what people eat is to visit a carinderia. This is especially true when visiting somewhere like Iloilo, where certain dishes have reached such iconic status that they are often the only dishes written about or talked about. Iloilo is known for batchoy, kansi, molo soup, and seafood. While they do give you an idea of what Ilonggos like to eat, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
On our second day in Iloilo, Chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza, a passionate advocate of Iloilo’s cuisine, who guided us on a food marathon like no other, took us to St. Martha’s. It was more like a neighborhood turo-turo, but we were told it served homecooked Ilonggo food, the sort that people ate every day. We were there before 11 a.m. because apparently, the best dishes sold out fast.
Managat and other seafood at Breakthrough
Lengua con setas from Rfael’s La Cocina del Sur
A feast of oysters and seafood at Bebot and Mila Talabahan
Kitang is a delicate fish similar to pampano
Sticky, lip-smacking callos
Typical Ilonggo home-style food at St. Martha’s
Pata, a batwan-soured soup of cow feet at St. Martha’s
The biggest insight from that P500 feast was the subtlety and pureness of the flavors we were presented with. Many of the dishes were vegetables, cooked with little seasoning, and just enough to let their natural sweetness come through. There were many dishes, including soupy alugbati simply cooked with a little ground meat for flavor; laswa, squash, eggplant, string beans, and okra simmered in water just until their flavors melded, adobong takway, gabi (taro root) tendrils cooked with soy sauce and vinegar; tambo, thinly shaved bamboo shoots cooked with okra, a little coconut milk, and some guinamos for flavoring; and pinamalhan nga salmonete sa kamatis, an Ilonggo style of cooking fish where it is stewed in some vinegar, onions, and tomatoes until almost dry and the tomatoes have almost disintegrated.
Many of the dishes we ate in Iloilo were still in their traditional form, cooked and eaten the same way for generations. The people of Iloilo hold fast to their traditions, even the young, who have been exposed to so much more in this age of information and social media. The flavors are subtle. Some dishes are gently sour, with the acidity coming from batwan, a type of fruit widely used in this part of the Philippines. In Iloilo, the sourness is balanced not so much with sugar sweetness, but with an underlying fruit flavor that comes from the batwan. It is batwan that gives flavor to kansi, the Ilonggo bulalo soup with a subtle sourness; and K.B.L. or kadyos, baboy, langka, a soupy stew of pigeon peas, pork hocks, and green jackfruit. Contrary to popular belief, Ilonggo dishes are not overtly sweet. Not even their bread is sweet.
At another meal, we feasted on seafood at Bebot and Mila Talabahan. Talabahans can be loosely described as oyster shacks, and they are a favorite place for a meal with family and friends. While talabahans can be found all over the city, many of them line the Circumferential Road/Coastal Road. They are built of bamboo, small and rickety looking in front, but opening up into open-air restaurants that jut out over the sea on bamboo stilts. Bebot and Mila’s is fairly new, just three years old, but on a weekday lunch it is crowded and bustling with families and office workers. Heaps of oysters are piled high on plates, barely cooked by having boiling water poured over the shells. They are fresh, juicy, and taste of the sea. We dribbled them with sinamak, Iloilo’s version of spiced vinegar, and slurped them noisily from their shells. Another standout dish was kikiero, a spotted fish similar to pompano, slashed on both sides, painted with bright orange atsuete oil, and singed over charcoal.
Seafood is also the specialty at Breakthrough, a breezy restaurant on the beach whose name is almost synonymous with Iloilo City. Everyone eats at Breakthrough, and everyone brings their guests there. One of the bestsellers is managat, a fatty, meaty-tasting fish that is served simply grilled with atsuete oil. Managat used to be considered a pest in fishponds. Two of Breakthrough’s best dishes fly under the radar—inasal na manok, roasted whole, basted again in the ubiquitous atsuete oil, and redolent with lemongrass and garlic; and Munding Duck. Local duck stewed until tender with lots of lemongrass and ginger. The duck dish is named after the owner, Raymundo Robles, because it is his recipe.
Ilonggos, Chef Tibong tells us, love their food. They are constantly thinking about where and when their next meal will be. Local food is always more popular than foreign cuisines. And they always consider value for money. Fancy and expensive restaurants with tiny portions would not do very well in Iloilo, we were told—not when eating is always a loud, joyous feast filled with family and friends. As we moved from place to place, the question was always where would we go next? People had personal favorites they insisted we visit, and they always asked about places we were going to that they weren’t familiar with.
Chef Tibong owns Rafael’s La Cocina del Sur, a restaurant that specializes in Ilonggo cuisine and the food served on the tables of the hacienderos. He serves a lengua con setas y olivas (tongue with mushrooms and olives) that is buttery soft, with an intense tomato sauce that is cooked until almost dry and a sheen of red oil floats on top. He serves callos the same way, cooked for hours until the rich sauce is sticky and lip-smacking. Tibong’s paella negra has a surprising contemporary touch, topped with crisp calamares and a hint of salted egg yolk.
Through Tibong, we also learned that inasal na manok is different from what Ilonggo’s call barbecued chicken. Inasal is whole native chicken, rubbed with atsuete oil, and slathered with a paste of lemongrass and spices before being grilled over charcoal. One of the Iloilo favorites is Rawit’s, which is located inside Iloilo’s Central Market at the chicken section. In the market, live native chickens huddle together waiting for their fate, just a few feet beside a charcoal-grilled laden with golden skinned inasal waiting for customers. Native chickens have more bite and toughness to their flesh and skin, but the taste is incomparable.
Barbecued chicken, on the other hand, is what is served at Fort San Pedro, sort of like a beer garden near the jump-off point to Guimaras Island. I say sort of, because it’s still sort of a family place, and families bring children to roller skate there in the daytime. The chicken is also grilled, but its flavor profile is slightly sweet and garlicky. At night, there’s a live band, the sort that sings the tacky classic pop songs that everyone knows by heart to sing to, but is too ashamed to admit.
There are still so many other restaurants and dishes from Iloilo to write about. I haven’t started on the batchoy, the old-time bakeries, snack foods, and newer restaurants that are putting Iloilo on the Philippines’ culinary map. Watch out for part two of my Iloilo adventures in a couple of weeks!
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