Iloilo bolsters claim as PH’s food haven

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If there’s any other place in the country where the food scene is as vibrant and exciting as Metro Manila’s, then it’s undoubtedly Iloilo. And that’s mostly due to the efforts of Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza Jr., who just introduced the first cookbook of the province, held the ninth installment of his annual cooking competition, and took us on another round of food trips featuring restaurants he had never brought us to before.

Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza is Iloilo’s culinary ambassador.

Tibong’s lifelong wish was to produce a book featuring the heirloom recipes of his fellow Ilonggos. Finally, with the help of a ton of people, his dream has been realized.

The 208-page “Flavors of Iloilo” was launched at SM City Iloilo Southpoint in mid-October. It was attended by officials from the city government as well as Rosalie Sarabia Treñas, who is the executive director of the book, Michaela Fenix and Ige Ramos.

Tibong, who is the book’s author, recipe developer and stylist, gathered over 70 dishes to come up with an impressive collection that not only preserves tradition but also introduces readers to the flavors and ingredients in the region.

Aside from the usual suspects like batchoy and pansit molo, there’s paklay, a salad of young bamboo shoots; bas-uy, a ginger soup with pork tenderloin and offal; tinu-om nga manok cooked in a banana leaf pocket; inadobo nag umbok or quail stewed in coconut vinegar; and lauya, pork hock and jackfruit stew.

Curious items also found their way into some recipes such as bilong-bilong or moonfish, biga-biga or pork rectum, and ubre or pork mammary gland.

If anything, the variety and influences of the dishes in this book strengthen Iloilo’s claim as the food haven of the Philippines.

Food war

One of the reasons I get to fly to this Visayan province every year is Tibong’s Tabu-an cooking competition. Now on its ninth edition, this year’s contest had 10 sets of chefs come up with three courses showcasing local ingredients and innovation.

There was a number of promising plates that I and fellow judges Don Baldosano (Linamnam), Kalel Chan (Raintree Group) and Don Colmenares (Berbeza Bistro) had to debate over a couple of times, to see who really deserved to win.

Many versions of kinilaw were presented for the appetizer round. A group made kusahos and had sheets of beef drying under the sun throughout the three-hour cooking time, and another churned out dragonfruit ice cream from scratch (no machine allowed).

Iloilo bolsters claim as PH’s food haven
The winning “lechon lumpia”

But the team that really impressed us all—and won every category, consequently emerging as the overall champion— was the Western Institute of Technology group headed by Achilles Capuso and Oscar Salazar III. They presented a lechon (roasted on site) lumpia with ubod, kuyabog or stuffed squab with tuba reduction sauce and a cheesecake made with kalabasa dulce de leche with batwan sorbetes.

I’ve been to Iloilo 10 times and yet, I still discover new and noteworthy places to eat in.

This time around, Tibong introduced us to Punot, a two-floor restaurant located at the Riverside Boardwalk along the Iloilo Esplanade where 37-year-old chef and owner Tope Aranador gets to play around with traditional fare. His chowder has malunggay pesto, his molo balls are deep-fried and served with sinamak, his tilapia is cornflake-crusted, and his monggo soup has coconut milk and lupo, an edible weed. The variations on what we’re used to aren’t too alienating. In fact, his creative touches take the dishes to a fascinating level, without jeopardizing the promised comfort.

Iloilo bolsters claim as PH’s food haven
Punot’s “kadyos, baboy at langka”

8 Villa opened in 2019. The owner, Ian Varona, lives just across the beach, and to make good use of his downtime and flair for cooking, he decided to turn his bamboo hut living room into a cozy beachfront restaurant. He has been busy ever since.

They have grilled liempo, sinuglaw and breaded chicken, but the show stealers really are the crispy dried squid salad, shrimp kinilaw, grilled scallops in a skewer, sinigang na isda, aligue rice and grilled catch of the day, which usually is composed of maya-maya, lapu-lapu and lison. End the meal with brazo de mercedes based on the age-old recipe of Varona’s mom.

Spanish spread

Another pandemic project is Café Amistad by Marichel and Teddy Magalona. Located in Brgy. Cordova in Tigbauan, their place is like a property lifted off Bali, with bamboo casitas (available for rent) sitting right next to rice fields. The place is very inviting, especially at night when the lights are up. If that is not enough bait, then Marichel’s food will definitely get you hooked.

She does a mean Spanish spread that’s as delicious as the ones found here in the metro. In fact, her bacalao and sopa de ajo are among the best I’ve had. Not to be outdone are her lengua, callos and paella. The al fresco private dining by the Magalonas certainly makes for a unique and most welcome dining experience in Iloilo.

Richmonde Hotel Iloilo’s The Granary has been attracting lots of people come weekends when they lay out a delicious buffet spread featuring, among others, Indian classics and Japanese sushi for a reasonable price. Their LaMeza Ilonggo, a tasting menu, has also been luring interested parties ever since they launched it during their seventh anniversary last July.

Iloilo bolsters claim as PH’s food haven
Ariel Castañeda in his element

Available in five, seven and nine courses for a minimum of 10 people and a maximum of 25, the degustation flexes the creative capability of chef Ariel Castañeda, who, interestingly enough, won the 8th Tabua-an competition. His repertoire has got to be one of trendiest and most inspired ones out there. There’s a croquette filled with white cheddar and fresh oysters, chicken inasal roulade with soy pearls and garlic rice tuile, a batwan cotton candy and pie dessert, and a mango compote and carabao cheese palate cleanser where guests have to lick the plate clean. I love that he is upping the food game of his province, and that the locals are warmly embracing it.

Iloilo bolsters claim as PH’s food haven
Castañeda’s chicken “inasal” interpretation

To order “Flavors of Iloilo,” contact Jennie Tamon of Iloilo Festivals Foundation Inc. at tel. no. 0910-5527304. Special thanks to Richmonde Hotel Iloilo and general manager Natalie Lim.

Follow the author at @fooddudeph on Instagram.

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