By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

SAMAR is regularly brought down to its knees thanks to its geographical location, which puts it right in the path of storms, including the long nightmare that was Typhoon Yolanda. And yet, when BusinessWorld spent the last days of February there, it was hard to feel that it was a province that knew hardship. In a carinderia (roadside eatery), a couple feasted on what are considered luxuries in the country’s capital: crabs and upland rice. A member of the tour group, who will not be named, scoffed, “And they call us poor.”

It isn’t an exaggeration when this reporter uses the word “poor.” An article from the Philippine News Agency in 2019 identifies Samar province (also known as Western Samar) as among the country’s poorest provinces in the country. Samar province shares this status with its neighbors on Samar Island, Northern and Eastern Samar.

BusinessWorld was on a trip to Samar province because of the provincial government’s launch of its project, Secret Kitchens of Samar. The project aims to make Samar a culinary destination, tied to the local government’s Spark Samar development program, which once aimed to boost tourism in the province. In the process of developing tourist spots and highlights in the province, they also managed to change the face of the province bit by bit. The project was started by former Governor and now Representative Sharee Ann Tan, and is being continued by her brother, the present governor, Reynolds Michael Tan (whom people fondly call Mike). Just in his 30s, he ascended to the position after his mother, Governor Milagrosa Tan, passed away late last year. He was then sitting as vice-governor.

At a dinner with the provincial officers, Tourism Operations Officer John Michael Cristobal (also called Mike) happily announced that the poverty incidence within the province has dropped to 22% from a figure of 43.9% in 2015, and 32.2% in October 2019 (the last two figures are from the Philippine Statistics Authority).

BusinessWorld then got a taste of the riches this poor province may have to offer, honoring its efforts to get up from its knees.

Our very first stop was the Sta. Rita Food Processors’ Association, located behind a church. It began as a project of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to help Samarnon (what the citizens of Samar are called) women rise up from the ravages of Yolanda. Others were taught crafts, but this group from Sta. Rita was taught how to make chips from karlang, a humbler cousin of taro. Karlang used to be converted into animal feed, but after being taught to wash it several times, and fry with garlic or other flavorings, the women have managed to turn them into chips that remind one of Pringles. Help from the DTI is key: several more of the small businesses we would see during the tour would thank various government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture (DA), the Department of Science and Technology (DoST), and the Department of Tourism (DoT).

It is said that a word is invented because society has a need for it: it’s the same reason we have different words for rice, like in its seed form, or what it’s called after it’s cooked (palay vs. kanin). It’s no surprise then, that we encountered several words that reflect several variations of food, though they belonged to the same family. An example would be the various kakanin (snack food) we saw in the municipality of Pinabacdao. There’s the plain nilupak made of cassava, but then there was sagmani, made of taro and nuts. Cassava, meanwhile, is processed into thin sheets and fried, resulting in a crispy sheet called piking, topped with coconut sugar. Other towns we visited also had various desserts made out of crispy, toasted rice, while another town boasted its own cheesemaker and tablea (chocolate) maker. Mayette and Norbing Bernales showed us how they processed the tablea, shoving cocoa beans into a roaster — the noise made us lose part of the process as she explained it, but she showed us a metal bowl that contained the sticky and shiny penultimate step, just waiting to be molded and cooled. Mrs. Bernales also showed us how she made the province’s version of cheese, keseo, made of carabao’s milk curds in vinegar, then molded into discs. While the recipe is from her mother, another government agency helped her formalize the process. They were happy to tell us that the provincial government was kind enough to sponsor their trips to the capital during trade fair season, but Mr. Bernales said that since they’ve had a measure of prosperity, they’ve begun to pay their own way.

As we moved closer to the provincial capital of Catbalogan, we began to see how the wealthy of Samar entertained. Juliana Samson, descended from an old Samar clan, welcomed us into her home. She told us how to make tamalos, a pork and peanut dish served at fiestas. While her large sapphire earrings gleamed, she cooked the pork in a process akin to making an adobo (a stew made with vinegar). She took the pork out after about an hour of cooking, and used the dark brown broth from that to make a peanut sauce, mixing it with homemade peanut butter. This is mixed with rice, wrapped in banana leaves, and then steamed — kind of like tamales, except tamales is made with corn. The result is kind of like kare-kare (a stew with peanut sauce), but with more flavor, and an interesting, congealed texture. A version without steaming is called pinipian, which was served to us in chafing dishes at dinner at the hotel we stayed in, Alfreda’s Bed and Breakfast. Once a house occupied by a provincial governor, the rooms are decorated in mid-century style, and display his family’s academic achievements: from the Ateneo de Manila to the University of Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, two descendants of the local Piczon family, the Paleyan siblings Mary May and Gilbert, showed us how to make bola catalana, yet another festive pork dish, made with ground pork wrapped around sausage and eggs, mixed with pickle relish and cheese. The difference of this dish from more familiar meat loaves is that this is wrapped in lace fat, a membrane that surrounds the internal organs of some animals. This creates a crispy crust around it, like bacon.

Meanwhile, further from Catbalogan and closer to the sea, we met Leonora Nono, a retired principal who showed us how to make humba. While humba in other provinces is sort of like adobo but with black beans, this one from Samar is made with peanuts. She cooked it in an old clay pot, which is, just like the recipe, passed down from one generation to another (she has since lost the lid though).

And thus we began to ask why the project was called the Secret Kitchens of Samar. The governor told us that it is to be developed into a brand with a yellow and purple “S” seal, with about 10 products which were slated to launch on March 12 — the coronavirus scare has dampened those plans, as the event in Shangri-La Plaza in Metro Manila was postponed, according to a statement from an agency. Mr. Cristobal told us, “It comes from the idea that normally, our elders here, when they cook, they’re alone. They close the doors, the windows. They don’t really share their recipes.”

Karina Tiopes, Director, Department of Tourism Regional Office VIII, added, “The recipe is handed down from generation to generation, to select members of the family.” In jest, she then pointed to one of her colleagues and said that he wasn’t able to inherit his grandmother’s recipe for yet another pork dish. (No prizes for guessing that pork and peanuts are popular here).

I will tell you now though that one of my personal highlights of the trip was sipping and nibbling on an exceptionally fine tinola (light chicken stew) from Calbiga. It was cooked in a pot, boiled with just ginger, turmeric, and lemongrass. It was special, not only because the broth was fine, clear, and tasty, but because the tour party had this served amidst the roaring Lulugayan Waterfalls, a local tourist spot, refurbished with a viewing deck and improved roads.

The improved roads didn’t reach the municipality of Pagsanghan, one of our stops. The journey for these wretched crabs took an hour and 45 minutes on a rough road traversing a mountain, that may make you want to grit your teeth and purse your lips.

But I take it back. Those crabs were not wretched. Perhaps it was the long journey on an empty stomach, but the mud crabs served in the municipal hall was one of the best meals I’ve ever had. The town credits its seafood bounty to the fact that it is situated on brackish water, and the mix of saltwater and fresh results in their seafood grows better than the rest.

In the town of Jiabong, meanwhile, nearer the sea, mussel farmers showed us their wares. The green shellfish grow on bamboo stilts, which seem miniscule on land. “Oh, that’s just one of them,” said one farmer. We were shown how the mussels are grown: in tent-shaped bamboo structures several feet high and wide. They’re planted in the sea so the mussels could spawn on them. Boats travel around from structure to structure during the day to scrape off the mussels, and then the shells are brought to shore to be sold. It was in this town that we encountered barbecue made of mussels (served on a stick) and mussels adobo (a lovely and spicy preserve in oil).

We also went to a tinapa maker, who showed us how he made the smoked fish by first cooking it in brine, then smoking it over bamboo shavings. The fish were beautiful in the sunlight, the skin radiating an iridescence that disappears in the smoking process. The people there said that they started in the 1970s, their parents migrating from Cavite. The fishing boat that brought them a measure of wealth in the 1970s disappeared, which was why the family learned how to make smoked fish. In a story that echoes in the fishing villages ravaged by typhoons, a family member said, “Sa dagat siya nadapa. Doon rin siya bumangon (She fell in the sea, and in the sea, she rose again).”

If all the roads in Samar were like those we were on, on the way to Crab City, then the Secret Kitchens of Samar, will remain well, secret. Governor Tan told us that unfortunately, that road is the only one they haven’t finished, and when the funds from the national government arrive, construction will continue. “The roads here, to the municipalities, are concrete, except for Pagsanghan. What we’re doing is to connect all the barangays.”

One can take roads for granted, but roads function just like veins to the heart. Without them, communities can die at a slow pace — or as quickly as possible. Mountainous Samar province has a problem with the militant New People’s Army. The provincial government says that in a series of peace talks, it found out what they were so angry about: roads.

“The reason why they go to the mountains is because there are no access roads; they don’t have opportunities,” said Governor Tan in a mixture of English and Tagalog.

“Through tourism, they get their roads, they’re given opportunities,” he said, citing success stories such as former combatants turning into tour guides, or opening their own local businesses. He also announced that an airport will be built in the provincial capital of Calbiga, which he hopes would be open and operational by the end of the year.

Roads make it easier for everyone. The path to Lulugayan Falls once took four hours: both for locals in the capital and even those who live near it. After roads were built to make the falls more accessible, not only were tourists able to reach it more easily, but the farmers who lived near the falls were able to bring their crops to town, bringing down both cost and prices. We go back to the original project, which was only supposed to boost tourism: “It’s not about tourism alone. It’s [already] a development agenda,” said Governor Tan.