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 was known for another facial organ – the tongue. Not only because its local cuisine was a delight to the taste buds, but for a molluscan species endemic to the waters around the island: diwal, a name derived from the Ilonggo verb, “to stick out one’s tongue.” It perfectly described the appearance of this sea creature. When its shell was pried open, its elongated body would hang 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 had since developed a stronger tummy and an unrepentant tongue.
But the devil was in the dessert. Known for Iloilo’s best sweets, Mama’s Kitchen, aka Sinamay House, was the perfect pasalubong place. Sinamay, a kind of fiber better known as abaca, was used for many things, such as making 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 with calado patterns. 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) – the stuff that our national costumes were made of. They were crisply elegant and sufficiently airy for tropical weather, though uncomfortably stiff. We used them when we wore 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 were heritage items that could occupy the attention of those not sartorially inclined, such as a still-functional loom and the family vintage car. Mom picked up the receiver of a rotary wall phone and was surprised to hear dial tone. It was still working!
But for a foodie post, I should focus on the house’s sinful sweets. The mango chewies, thick cookies with mango pulp bits, delivered in both flavor and consistency. From the island next door known for our sweet delicacies, I must say the chewies could hold their own. Its tempered sweetness and chewiness made it addictive. I could demolish a box in one sitting.
Sweets and seafood aside, Iloilo was 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 served 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 was a fall from grace of good grub. My advice to foodies: 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.