âSaboringâ Iloilo food culture
First order of business was tinuom near the Iloilo Airport.

‘Saboring’ Iloilo food culture

THE BACONMAN COMETH - Sharwin Tee (The Philippine Star) - May 30, 2019 - 12:00am

At the beginning of the year, I mentioned to my friends that this year would finally be the year I would find a way to go to Iloilo. Little did I know that someone else was working on my behalf to make that happen.

“So, just let me know if you are free and willing to come,” said chef Tibong Jardeleza. “It’s going to be fun.”

It’s my first conversation with him and I like him already. In just three minutes, Tibong was able to outline his event, Sabores de Visayas, which was sponsored by the Department of   Tourism. He shared his vision of introducing Visayan flavors (particularly Ilonggo) to chefs from other provinces, but also having these same chefs show different ways to use these flavors in their own way, so that the Ilonggos can see their food in a different light.

He asked me to cook one of my dishes that could highlight the batuan. In exchange, he promised to show me all the best eating places in Iloilo. If you know me by now, this was an irresistible offer. Don Corleone would have been proud.

The first of many amazing bowls of batchoy

A couple of weeks later, I flew into Iloilo. We barely passed the airport exit when Tibong suggested a breakfast of batchoy. After all, we were in Iloilo. Mickey Fenix had a sudden inspiration and suggested tinuom instead. Tibong lit up, agreed that it was a good idea and the car stopped just two minutes later.

JBoy’s Tinuom is right beside the airport area and we dove into the tinuom right away. Tinuom is a chicken soup mildly flavored with ginger and lemongrass and cooked inside a banana leaf pouch. The unparalleled flavors of native chicken are championed in the mild, subtle broth, highlighted by the hint of flavor from the banana leaves and aromatics. Coming from an early flight, this was definitely most welcome. 

Back in the car, I began to prepare to head to the hotel, but Tibong had other things in mind. Still in Sta. Barbara, the car turned into smaller and smaller streets in the Ilawod area until we came upon a nondescript sign saying “Batchuyan.” I was about to have my first batchoy in Iloilo and I couldn’t even remember how we got to this place.

Some beautiful fatty crab for lunch

I watched, hypnotized, as a group of ladies worked efficiently, with one loading bowls with noodles, meat, and chicharon, while another poured a lovely broth into each. I heard the instant popping sounds of the chicharon as the boiling-hot liquid touched them. My stomach rumbled as if I had not just eaten an entire bowl of tinuom just 10 minutes before.

I was in heaven. The noodles were al dente, no doubt freshly made; the meat and liver were tender, the chicharon crunchy and the broth sweet and umami-laden. I hadn’t been to Iloilo for more than an hour and I already regretted not coming here years earlier. As we all downed our batchoy in between bites of puto, we all complained that we were so full yet secretly hoped that Tibong had more in store for us.

We need not have worried.

We drove into the city and headed straight to Spring Palace. Tibong ordered crab and suahe shrimps, making sure they were only steamed so we could enjoy the live seafood’s freshness. Halfway through the meal, my stomach felt like bursting, but my arms had minds of their own, alternating between grabbing more fatty crabs and sweet shrimp. Apparently, my arms didn’t get the memo to stop myself from eating more.

My Pork Asado with Honey Batuan Sauce

With that kind of welcome, how could I let Tibong down? The following day, I stepped into the kitchen at the Marriott, where sous chef Toto had graciously marinated my pork already. For Sabores de Visayas, I wanted to celebrate both my Chinese heritage and Iloilo’s huge Chinoy community, so I made pork asado and instead of the usual hoisin apple glaze, I decided to make a honey-and-batuan sauce.

I started with some fresh batuan fruit cooked down with honey and a touch of vinegar. Then, I combined the puree with Tibong’s homemade batuan jam and cooked it down with sugar, salt and cayenne pepper.

Once the sauce was ready, the pork loins were roasted for 15 minutes. Then, we slathered the pork with as much of the sauce as they could take, sliced them up and then slathered even more sauce. We packed up the pork and headed for Sabores de Visayas.

When I get to the venue, I had goose bumps all over. The beautiful buffet table settings and lights were set up against the backdrop of the beautiful Nelly’s Garden, one of Iloilo’s heritage houses, whose owner, Franny, was generous enough to let us use.

The featured chefs at Sabores de Visayas: Chele Gonzalez, author Sharwin Tee, Tibong Jardeleza, Maridel Uygongco and Sandy Daza

Meanwhile, the hardworking Marriott staff set up my dish beside some of the dishes of Iloilo’s best, including Maridel Uygongco, Panaderia de Molo and chef Tibong’s Cafe del Prado from Hotel del Rio. I looked around and saw the Lechon Karnero that chef Sandy Daza would carve and the seafood soup with libas that chef Chele Gonzalez prepared. Just being there was incredibly humbling and exciting.

As the night went on, I got to meet new Ilonggo friends and hear their approval over all of the food the chefs prepared. If hearts could smile, mine was smiling widely. Yet another of Tibong’s food events had become a success and to contribute to that, even in the smallest of ways, was an honor worth the trip itself.

“Tomorrow, we will eat more and have more fun,” he said.

Ah, Tibong. My stomach was ready.

*    *    *

Sharwin’s book, So, You Want To Be A Chef? is available in all National Book Stores and Powerbooks nationwide. Follow Sharwin’s food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him on www.sharwintee.com.

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