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THE FIRST TASTE OF ZAMBOANGA cooking happened as soon as we left the airport. It only took a few minutes to get to a place called Busy Bee where we had breakfast. It turned out to be arroz caldo?rice soup with chicken. What was different about the order is it?s paired with fresh lumpiang ubod placed on a boat-like container that can probably serve as sashimi plate. The soup was certainly what I needed after that early morning flight and the lumpia, wrapped like a napkin fold, had crunchy ubod. Edna Montano, owner of this simple eatery, also pressed me to try her ampalaya pickle, proud of its crunch as well.

Another interesting breakfast was at Ester?s Carenderia and Pata Haus, the word ?pata? a loud hint about the place?s specialty. It?s beef pata, boiling incessantly throughout the morning until all the pieces are sold. Like the soothing arroz caldo, the pata puts something warm into your system, better than coffee can.

We sought out satti because it was one of the new things I learned on my first visit. I remembered going to Morning Glory for the small barbecued chicken and beef immersed in red sauce eaten with puso, or rice wrapped in coconut leaves. This time, we went to Jimmy?s, suggested by a reader who read my piece on pamapa itum, the spice mix of Tausugs. Satti is breakfast food also and the place was packed. Jimmy?s now sells satti sauce ingredients to make at home or consisting of a pamapa itum pack, grated coconut with red coloring and camote starch as thickener.

For four days, we would be out to sample the city?s cooking, breakfast to dinner most times. There were four orders that were similar in many of the places. One is the curacha or red frog crab. Alavar and Nandau were the restaurants that introduced the crab to Manila but it is Alavar that is known for the red orange sauce served with it. Another is imbao, mangrove shells that look like white clams cooked with butter and garlic. We were introduced to Zamboanga White, a creamy lychee drink. And then the butong (buko, young coconut) pie that?s made like a custard topped with a heap of meringue browned at the top. We sampled the one from Mama Lottie?s Homemade Pies.

Homegrown eateries

There are homegrown eateries that have been there for what seems like ages. Myrna?s Bake Shop, for instance, has been providing sweets for 25 years now. Myrna Inocencio, with her daughter Ivy, makes not only the usual cakes and pastries but innovates as well. One of the bestsellers is the maja blanca in four flavors?ube, lychee, mais and durian. Myrna is one of the first winners of the Maya Cookfest.

New Country Chicken at Pasonanca is one of the oldest restaurants that has since changed ownership. One of them is Ricky Manzano who says that even if they wanted to introduce a menu, people still looked for the favorite orders of the place such as The Original Mano-Mano, a mix of adobo, longganisa, bagoong, green mangoes, chorizo and tomatoes. Within the compound of the eatery is La Oliva where Manzano cooks dishes and loves to eat. This is where he executes his favorite Spanish food like paella and callos, and also where he experiments with orders he has had elsewhere and which he wants to serve.

We went as well to eat out at La Vista del Mar, Lotus Chinese Restaurant, Café del Sol and Palmeras.

On my first visit I didn?t get to eat as much of the local cooking but I was given recipes which were tested in Manila and which proved so good. The Zamboanga cocido is basically boiled beef with flavor from bacon, chorizo or ham bone with saba and camote. There was pork sinigang with camanse (breadfruit) and chicken and pork estopao that?s like afritada. Their version of dinugaan has pork belly slices and innards cooked as adobo first before adding the pork blood.

On our recent visit, Ermin Lim Saavedra cooked traditional Zamboanga recipes of his mother. Some of them were the salmuera, talakitok (jack) sliced then salted and kept for three days then cooked in coconut milk with camanse, and adobo with shredded dried fish that should be tried because the combination of salty and sour is terrific. A mango variety called juani, like a big Indian mango, was peeled then cubed then bathed in coconut cream.

There have been changes, certainly through the years. Old timers tell me that the vinta with the colorful sail no longer plies the waters. I?m hoping that traditional cooking will still be around on my next visit like the Zamboanga tamal (tamales) that still has noodles within.