Iloilo City, the Philippines
April 18 and 20, 2011
Though the name Iloilo may have come from the word ilong, the vernacular for nose, the province is known for another facial organ – the tongue. Not only because its local cuisine is a delight to the taste buds, but for a molluscan species endemic to the waters around the island: diwal. The Ilonggo word means to stick out one’s tongue. That pretty much describes the appearance of this mollusk. When its shell is pried open, its elongated body hangs out limply like a tongue.
It had been years since I last tasted diwal. The species disappeared for a decade or so; I figured it had gone the way of the dodo. It was a relief to see it on my dinner plate at Breakthrough Restaurant. Diwal didn’t disappoint. Both tender and chewy, it was brinier than usual this time though. I used to flinch at the sight of oysters and other bottom feeders; diwal was my first bite into the sinful succulence of this non-kosher seafood. I’ve since developed a stronger tummy and an unrepentant tongue.
But the devil is in the dessert. Known for Iloilo’s best sweets, Mama’s Kitchen, which also goes by the name Sinamay House, is the perfect pasalubong (coming home gift) place. Sinamay is as a kind of fiber, better known as abaca, used for many things, such as clothes. It got me scratching my head – was it a confectionery or a haberdashery? It turned out that the two-storey Victorino Chavez ancestral house was more a museum and the home of a weaving cottage industry (managed by the fourth-generation descendant of Chavez) than anything else. So with apologies to my writing teachers, I shall go off-topic.
We were led to the second floor into a typically airy living room of a heritage house. The windows were wide and the walls topped with ventanillas (ventilation spaces on carved wood, usually with calado design). My sister, the fashionista in the family, had a field day modelling shawls and kaftans and checking out yards of fabric made from a combination of natural fibers: sinamay, piña (pineapple), and jusi (banana silk). These are the stuff that our national costumes are made of. Crisply elegant and sufficiently airy for tropical weather, these are the clothes we use when we wear our national identity on our (for women, butterfly) sleeves.
Mom, a fan of fans, got one with calado design, a kind of embroidery with spaces between elaborately woven patterns. Other than fabric, there are heritage items that can occupy the attention of those who are not sartorially inclined, such as a still-functional loom and the family vintage car. Mom picked up the receiver of an old rotary wall phone and was surprised to hear dial tone. It was still working!
But this is a foodie post, so on to the house’s sinful sweets. The mango chewies, thick cookies with mango pulp bits, delivered in both flavor and consistency. I’m from the island next door known for our sweet delicacies and I must say the chewies could hold their own. Its tempered sweetness and chewiness make it addictive. I could demolish a box in one sitting.
Sweets and seafood aside, Iloilo is notorious for its baneful bowl of batchoy - a soup with stir-fried porcine innards, chicharon (crispy pork rind), shrimp broth, some vegetables, and round noodles, usually sprinkled with soy sauce. In other words, death by cholesterol. Nail that coffin with an extra serving of raw egg as topping.
Before heading to the airport, we couldn’t pass up Ted’s Oldtimer Lapaz Batchoy, a local chain that serves various styles of batchoy: special, super special, and extra super special (casket choices?). I went for the kamikaze superlative, the richest broth with all the good bad things thrown in. By the time we got to Manila, I was staggering with a nasty migraine while mom barfed still-recognizable batchoy ingredients into the toilet. Corporal (thank God, not capital) punishment was meted out swiftly.
The delectable dietary debauchery of Iloilo cuisine is a fall from grace of good grub. Just charge it to human nature and have your maintenance meds, and perhaps a barf bag, handy for deliverance.
Thanks from the pit of our stomachs to my cousin and his wife for leading us into the tasty temptations of Iloilo. Amen.