By SOL VANZI
Samar had, for the longest period, unfairly been taken for granted as a land of poverty, typhoons, and a source of cheap labor for Luzon. This image has drastically changed since Samar has steadily built a reputation as a hotspot for exploration and excitement, vast natural splendor, and improved infrastructure.
Behind this is the “Spark Samar” campaign, which revitalized the island community and created sustainable engagement of the economy by igniting people’s love for adventure.
From caves to kitchens
Among its treasures are massive caves, luscious falls, breathtaking views, and an entirely new world offering exciting gastronomic journeys.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat considers food as the powerhouse behind tourism today because it is the deciding factor that brings in people from all walks of life, and perfectly encapsulates a region’s history and culture. In a new campaign, visitors are invited to explore the secret kitchens of Samar and to travel across an unknown culinary pathway of unique flavors and blends that the families of the region have handed down with every generation: dishes like tamalos, bola catalana, corioso, and salvaro.
Very rich is Catbalogan’s version of embutido, bola catalana, made of ground pork, peas, raisins, boiled egg, sausage, bell pepper, milk, and breadcrumbs stuffed tightly inside leaf lard then baked in a pugon (wood-fired oven).
Food for progress
Just very recently shared by small entrepreneurs and local cooks are lovingly crafted meals that carry a long history, heirloom recipes that were preserved in personal notebooks and never widely commercialized with formalities.
This move toward further showcasing culinary tourism provides locales like Samar with an avenue to progress with community building and helps people make a living from it so that more generations can be enriched mentally and economically.
As these culinary gems become unhidden, more of Samar’s rich culture is brought to the forefront to enable locals while enriching tourists’ experiences in fascinating ways.
Whether it’s snacks, desserts, or ulam, traversing these secret kitchens marks another layer peeled from a campaign that started in 2015 to unlock the amazing things that Samar has to offer.
Contributing to the culinary identity of Samar are 24 municipalities and two cities that hold distinct heirloom recipes close to Samarnons, such as Catbalogan’s iconic tamalos, a pouch of crispy karlang chips from Sta. Rita, and a variety of innovative tahong recipes of Jiabong. Similar to Italian mozzarella and Greek feta is Gandara’s keseo, an indigenous cottage cheese made from fresh carabao milk.
For outsiders, the most familiar Samar delights are the sweet snacks brought to the cities as pasalubong (gifts) by returning locals. At the top of this list is binagol, grated yam in coconut milk that is sugar-packed and steamed for hours in a coconut shell and banana leaves.
Also a favorite of non-Warays is moron or chocolate moron also called bakintol, ground rice suman with chocolate.
Worth the effort
For very special events, families gather to prepare tamales—a version of Mexican tamales—which is packed with slivers of liempo (pork belly) and chunks of soft fat cooked with rice flour in a spicy, rich peanut sauce. It takes many people several days to prepare this special dish.
Also time-consuming is the famous sagmani, root crop (either cassava, sweet potato, or gabi or a combination of these) with young coconut and sugar. The mixture is wrapped in native hagikgik leaves and steamed for hours.
Pinabacdaos and sagmani
All these are revealed in the campaign dubbed the “Secret Kitchens of Samar,” to introduce the public to the rich and tasty array of Samarnon cuisine we did not even know existed. According to Samar Region’s Governor Michael Tan, “When Samar people cook, they close the doors and windows of the house. Each family wants to be known for a specialty, and recipes are handed down from generation to generation only to select members of the family.”
Persuading the families to share these kitchen secrets was difficult, but they were finally convinced about the potential benefits to the region and some eventually relented, allowing us a peek into their once-secret treasures.