By Zsarlene Chua

PALAWAN — often called the Philippines’ “Last Frontier” as the province still maintains more than 50% of its original forest cover and is home to more than a hundred threatened species according to — also boasts of a little-known culinary tradition rooted in the bounty of nature and the fusion cuisine that formed when Puerto Princesa, its capital, became the home of Vietnamese refugees.

“One way by which a people expresses its interpretation of the world is through its kitchen. Almost miraculously, the combination of taste, appearance, textures and scents in a dish conveys, not only a chef’s skill, but also how a people wishes to make sense of the world. Through experience, we have found out that one way to elicit enthusiasm for Filipino heritage is by making the kitchen the centerpiece of attention,” said Dr. Fernando Zialcita, a professor at the Cultural Heritage Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, at a dinner co-hosted by the Mama Sita Foundation, on Nov. 10 at the ALAB restaurant in Quezon city.

At the dinner, the professor and his students shed light on the Puerto Princesan food culture. The dinner part of an annual program in which students to study a Philippine province or locality in order to discover Filipino heritage through food.

The program started in 2012, focusing on Alburquerque, Bohol’s asin tibuok (literally “unbroken salt”) which is created by soaking coconut husks in seawater for months then drying and burning it. Seawater is then added to the ashes and slowly boiled. What results from this tedious process is an almost ball-shaped salt rock used for seasoning.

The following year, they focused on the five ways in which the lambanog (coconut wine) of Tayabas, Quezon, can be used in cooking. In 2014, the focus was on “new versions of cooking of Nasugbu-Balayan,” Mr. Zialcita said in his speech.

The program is venturing to Silay city in Negros Occidental next year “because of its rich, varied cultural heritage,” said Mr. Zialcita in an e-mail to BusinessWorld on Nov. 17.

“Cuisine is only one aspect of its heritage. Its architecture is outstanding. It is famous, by the way, for its version of lumpiang sariwa (fresh spring rolls) and its pastries,” he said.

Forest food

Located almost 600 nautical miles from the Philippine capital, Puerto Princesa is home to more than 200,000 people within a 2, area, making it the least densely populated city in the country.

Owing to province’s expansive forest cover and shoreline, much of the traditional food from the indigenous tribes such as the Tagbanua and Cuyonon (both are distributed in Northern and Central Palawan) is said to be “forest food.” It is thus “seasonal and in tune with the rhythm of nature” (for the Tagbanuas) and “fresh seafood or meat with minimal spices, otherwise seasoned with fresh fruits (calamansi, kamias or mangoes) or lemongrass, which is abundant in the Cuyo Isles,” said the report presented by Alfred Paolo Vergara and Juan Anselmo Enriquez.

The report also noted that one of the signature dishes of the Tagbanuas is ubod ng yantok (rattan shoots) which is also used as malaria herbal remedy. The rattan shoots are soured with kandis leaves. The Cuyonons, on the other hand, usually serve lauya or traditional beef/pork stew with lumabeng beans as the primary seasoning. The dish is quite similar to the Ilonggo kadyos-baboy-langka or KBL soup of Western Visayas which uses pigeon peas, unripe jackfruit, pork soured with the local batuan fruit — but unlike KBL, it uses calamansi (local lime) or tanglad (lemongrass) as souring agents.

During the dinner, ALAB Restaurant’s chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou presented the dish in what he called “egoless cooking” — cooking the food the way it traditionally is made without the tweaks chefs usually add, therefore presenting the dish as authentic as possible. Mr. Sarthou’s lauya used pork hocks with local beans and jackfruit. What resulted was a very mild pork broth soup, with the beans and jackfruit adding texture and little taste.

Puerto Princesa’s chicken inato or grilled chicken also bears a resemblance to the chicken inasal (also grilled chicken) of Bacolod — also in the Western Visayas — but instead uses fish paste and sinamak (Ilonggo spiced vinegar). Mr. Sarthou’s interpretation of the dish was a chicken roasted on a bed of lemongrass simply seasoned with salt — very flavorful yet mild.

(It could be inferred that due to the proximity of Palawan to the Western Visayas, some of the dishes have been shared between cultures.)

“With regards to the cuisine in those quarters, they feature very familiar dishes such as pancit (a noodle dish), pinakbet (steamed vegetables with fish or shrimp paste) and the like. Grilled meat (liempo, inasal) and fish or sinigang (sour soup) are the popular ways of cooking,” said Mr. Vergara in an e-mail to BusinessWorld on Nov. 23.

“You might wonder than what makes Puerto Princesa cuisine unique. Well, it is the freshness of the meat thus less reliance on the use of many condiments. Meat or fish is often salted or dipped in a simple marinade prior to grilling,” he noted.

Gathering honey

Aside from ubod ng yantok, the Tagbanuas are also known to be honey harvesters whose beliefs greatly influence how they harvest the treat as the people have formed a great affinity with the forest.

“They start to harvest in the morning before 9 a.m., the time when the bees are less aggressive because the hotter the day gets, the more likely the bees would attack,” said Cheska Malilin, citing Raoul Cola’s 2012 study on the “Tagbanua of Malampaya Sound: Conserving Nature as Lifeways.” “The harvesters must not use any kind of artificial fragrance that might entice the bees, so they just use the tree bark of apalang, leaves of pinpin or a type of rattan to prevent the attack of bees. The Tagbanua also believe that women in their menstruation should not harvest honey because the smell of blood also attracts the bees,

Coconut husks are used to smoke out the bees, and the gatherers are careful not to produce flame that might harm the hives and the plants in the forest.

“Warning the spirits and paying respect to the trees are also given value by the Tagbanua. They rinse the trunk of the trees with water and pandag roots to notify the spirits to come down. This ritual is done only during Tuesdays and Fridays, the days considered propitious to the spirits,” said Ms. Malilin.

There are five types of bees that the Tagbanuas harvest honey from, said Ms. Malilin in an e-mail to BusinessWorld on Nov. 21 — libten, kiyut, putyokan, tuti and patabawen. Each of them has specific plants and habitats from which it gathers pollen to make its honey.

The texture of the libten honey as “clear and dense” with a taste “said to have a fuller body and unadulterated sweetness,” and is considered the best one of the five.

Kiyut honey’s texture is said to rival the libten honey but with “an inferior” taste as the “brushland and mangrove area [habitat] provide kiyut less diverse types of flowering plants.” The putyokan honey is said to be “yellowish [and a] bit reddish during October when they are in the mangrove area.” Tuti honey is less clear than that of other species and has reddish tints as “their consumption of nectar from mangrove flowers gives its honey not only the reddish tint but also the slightly salty and bitter taste.” The honey from patabawen has a greenish tint.

Currently, Palawan honey is being used in local small-scale craft breweries such as Palawan Brewery which uses it for its Honey Kolsch variant. “Some of [the Tagbanua] dishes such as rattan shoots and their use of honey are being incorporated by some lowlanders and in some restaurants in the city proper,” said Mr. Vergara.

A taste of Vietnam

Puerto Princesa’s cuisine is quite unusual in that it is influenced by refugees from the Vietnam War who took shelter a camp in the city after the fall of Saigon in 1975. (Another camp was set up in Bataan.) While most of the Vietnamese eventually found homes in countries such as Australia, and the refugee camp closed in 1996, what was left behind was their country’s cuisine.

Mr. Vergara noted that a lot of restaurants in Puerto Princesa offer Vietnamese pho (noodle soup) which is locally called chao long. He said that pho has become so widespread that it has replaced the usual goto or arroz caldo (rice porridges) which were staples in local restaurants or carinderias. Similarly, the banh mi — a sandwich using bread made from rice flour, an adaptation of the baguette which was introduced by the French during Vietnam’s colonial period — is common fare in Puerto Princesa.

“[Pho and banh mi are] more popular than the goto, mami, and pan de sals (salt bread) that are staples in Manila and other parts of the country,” said Mr. Vergara.

The Palawanized version of Vietnamese cuisine is “sweeter” with “stronger and bolder flavors than the parent culture,” and he cited the use of generous quantities of fried garlic as one of the reasons for the taste.

With indigenous ingredients, cooking styles from neighboring islands, and the adoption and adaptation of dishes from a far-away culinary tradition, Palawanon cuisine is both familiar and unique, and another reason to visit the country’s “Last Frontier.”