A Filipino Muslim chef and writer has been cooking and serving the “black” dishes of the Moros from Muslim-dominated parts of southern Philippines, hoping to stir a fascination for seemingly exotic viands that could possibly pave a harmonious “culinary-connect” with Filipinos nationwide, majority of whom are Catholics.
“Appreciating Moro food (outside of Mindanao) is a step closer to realizing that we aren’t very different from each other after all. By perceiving similarities in ingredients, flavors, and cooking techniques, one becomes conscious of things that connect,” claims Datu Shariff Pendatun III, a professionally trained chef and award-winning food writer, who has also been serving as a food ambassador of sorts for the cuisine of his home region. Hailing from Maguindanao, Pendatun was a social anthropology student at the University of the Philippines, before he finished culinary arts with honors at the Center for Asian Culinary Studies in 2005.
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What is Moro food?
“Moro” encompasses different ethnic groups in Mindanao that are connected not just culturally but politically as well. Pendatun expounds, “Calling the foods of various Islamised ethnolinguistic groups (in Mindanao) Moro dishes is a political act in itself since the Moros own the term and have identified themselves as such.”
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is composed of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, formed after a referendum for autonomy in 1989, with Basilan and Marawi joining in 2001 after a peace settlement between the Philippine government and the 47-year-old Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). The signing of a third pro-autonomy peace settlement by the government and the 38-year-old Moro Islamic Liberation Front (it became an MNLF faction in 1981) in 2014, resulted in Congress approving the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) in January 2019.
To further explore the cuisines of Bangsamoro, Pendatun cooked and discussed a menu of six Moro dishes to illustrate his point about this “culinary-connect” during a well-attended lunch and lecture at Chef Jessie’s Place on Pililia Street in Makati last April 13. Organized by the Culinary Historians of the Philippines, the event was held in celebration of the country’s national Filipino Food Month.
The coconut connection
“I am introducing authentic Moro dishes with black and deep brown sauces made of burnt and roasted coconut meat, respectively. They are not yet popular in Manila, but done for ages by the Badjaos and Tausugs who live near Sulu Sea, the Maranaos on the shores of Lake Lanao, and the Maguindanaoans in Cotabato province,” explains Pendatun regarding the Moro dishes presented during the lunch.
Top on Pendatun’s list is Piyanggang Manuk or black chicken curry, a Tausug dish. Hours before the chicken is cooked, one first makes the special sauce called pamapa itum that renders the chicken black in color. Chunks of white coconut meat are grilled over hot coals until both sides turn black or ashen, without a trace of milk.
The burnt coconut meat is ground by food processor until thick, together with red curry paste, cilantro stems, garlic, yellow ginger, lemongrass, red onion, virgin coconut or olive oil, salt, spring onion, and fresh turmeric. Half of it is set aside to marinate choice chicken parts. The other half is mixed with the chicken after it is initially sautéed with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and red onions, and then simmered for several minutes in coconut milk (gata) and coconut cream (kakang gata).
Piyanggang Manuk is similar to another Tausug dish, Tiyula Itum or black tinola, although it was not part of the menu at Chef Jessie’s Place. According to recipe books, Tiyula Itum is also flavored with pamapa itum, but without (or just a hint of) red curry. It is used for marinating chosen parts of the meat, as well as added after the meat is lightly fried with garlic, ginger, lengkuas (galangal), onions, turmeric, and simmered with black pepper, lemongrass, shallots, and white coconut milk. Tiyula Itum is for picky royals during weddings and Hari Raya festivities, food historians claim.
Pendatun also presented Lininggil a Kambing, a goat dish by the Maguindanaoans of Cotabato, that is more deep brown than black thanks to the use of palapa sauce. Made of grated coconut meat roasted in a pan until brown and perfumed by a mouthwatering oily aroma, this sauce is macerated until thick, then generously poured over the goat meat while it simmers in white coconut milk, ginger, and other special spices.
Pendatun concocted Agal-agal, a seaweed salad with strips of green mango and the Tausugs’ special bubuk sauce. “Bubuk is the Tausugs’ name for palapa sauce. The Maranaos call the same sauce papar,” explains Clang Garcia, president of the Culinary Historians of the Philippines who has been spending time in the south to conduct research for her upcoming book on indigenous Moro dishes.
From black to light brown, Pendatun presented two more Moro dishes that use white coconut sauce (puting gata) to give these dishes a lighter appearance. The Maranaos’ Inaluban a Haruan is grilled snakehead fish (dalag) simmered in white coconut milk together with ginger, leeks, turmeric, and sweet potato leaves (kamote tops).
The Maranaos’ Urang Piyaren is crawfish flavored with a “dry” sauce made of white coconut meat, turmeric, and chili. It is similar to central Philippines’ binakol or chicken stewed with coconut meat.
“Sauces with burned and roasted coconut meat create extra strong or mild smoke flavors, respectively, in Moro dishes," Pendatun shares, assessing responses to the Moro dishes he served at the lunch event. "Trying them for the first time is always a discovery and novelty for most. The reactions I’ve witnessed were those of surprise and delight.”
The making of dark coconut sauce is not a monopoly of the Moros of Mindanao. The Tagalogs and Bicolanos of southern Luzon also have their own version of burnt coconut, albeit made differently by burning grated coconut meat with live coal in a pan. The Tagalogs call it kulawo, while the Bicolanos call it tinutungan. Pendatun explains that the sauces are meant to create a “soft breath of smoke (on dishes).” He adds, “Tinutungan taught me the wisdom of whispering on live coals whenever I use them to burn grated coconut meat.” Tinutungan and chili are now added to ice cream in Bicol, food historians say.
Spreading the knowledge
Regarding his role in promoting Moro dishes nationwide, Pendatun says, “I have roots there and I have a connection to its food and culture.” That connection is evident when Pendatun immortalized a dish called Pastil in his essay that won second prize in the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing contest in 2010. Pastil is a rice dish folded over slivers of chicken or fish—cooked ahead with ground turmeric powder, ginger, salt, and coconut oil—and shaped like a cylindrical suman with banana leaf. The dish is grilled on coal, “imparting a muted smokiness to the delicacy. The hot rice inside the banana leaf lends a unique flavor that flirts with fermentation.” Pastil, duck’s egg, and sweet kapi is the breakfast of both datus and workers in Buluan, Maguindanao, shares Pendatun, adding that he wrote his essay a few kilometers away from his grandfather’s old rubber plantation.
Hinting that people, more than chefs, can spread wider his favorite table-talk, Pendatun suggests, “Anyone who’s interested ought to travel to Mindanao and its islands to ascertain and promote southern cuisine.” Last year, a visit to the Pakaradjaan Food Festival in Lanao del Sur’s Marawi City during ARMM’s 29th anniversary was an overwhelming show of force of authentic Moro dishes from the provinces of Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and Marawi City, all ARMM members.
Chef Myke “Tatung” Sarthou, who is as passionate as Pendatun about Moro dishes, suggests the need for research to show the connections with neighboring cuisines: “I like to go deeper into our indigenous and pre-Hispanic cuisines to really understand who the Filipino is. We are part of the Southeast Asian community. It is most evident in coastal communities of Mindanao that are close to Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia. There are a lot of similarities (in their cuisines).”
If one can’t travel south, Pendatun suggests visiting eateries around the Golden Mosque in Manila’s Quiapo district. After all, hotels and high-end restaurants have popularized less indigenous southern Philippine dishes such as grilled tuna jaw and tail, tuna sashimi, curacha (spanner crab or red frog crab found in coastal Zamboanga and Sulu) steamed or with Alavar sauce, fresh oysters, pomelo-prawn salad, plus durian cakes, candies, and ice cream. Why not Moro dishes next?
With the enlargement of ARMM, after the legislated creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) last January 2019, a “deeper cuisine” of Moro dishes can be expected to be unearthed, Sarthou concludes with excitement.
Photos courtesy of Clang Garcia of the Culinary Historians of the Philippines and Nana Ozaeta