What a surprise to find a smooth drive from Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital city, to Sabang town, about two hours away, instead of the rough rocky trip we endured some five years ago. While roadwork on an old bridge is ongoing, the improved route is a good move for local tourism because Sabang is the launching pad to Palawan’s famed Underground River.
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A post-storm visit
A trip to this modern wonder of the world was one reason for going to Sabang. Another was a stay at the Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort, reputed to be one of the most eco-friendly hotels in the country, and awarded as the best among ASEAN countries. I wanted to find out if the food there was worth the visit.
It had been two weeks since the “perfect storm” that was Typhoon Yolanda, but the post-storm atmosphere lingered with waves coming in droves, pounding the shores. Daluyon, by the way, means “wave” in Palawan. Yolanda’s aftereffects were still felt the next day and our trip to the Underground River had to be moved to the day after, if the weather improved.
Seafood and other surprises
A resort within reach of the sea will naturally have seafood as its food hook. And it was so tempting to indulge in squid, prawns and fish with the freshness preserved by simply grilling then serving with just a squeeze of calamansi or good vinegar on the side. This was our first meal at Daluyon. But then they served dishes that made our hopes soar, that this resort restaurant wasn’t going to stick to just a generic Filipino menu.
Wrapped in banana leaves were dilis (anchovy) stewed in vinegar (paksiw). The wrapping helps to keep the small fish whole after it’s been cooked in an acidic brew and presents the dish perfectly. You could tell that the chef had been trained in a professional kitchen.
We found it difficult to sample Palawan’s famous tamilok (shipworm), which hides in the crevices of the mangrove branches, because of its fishy smell and the way its one eye makes it look like a creature from outer space, but our host decided to serve it anyway. In a cup shaped from crisp wonton wrapper, the tamilok was prepared as kinilaw (ceviche) and served with chopped onions and tomatoes. It looked good enough to eat, so we did, thus confirming that it indeed tastes like oyster, just as it has been described by those who have eaten it.
There was also adobo cooked three ways—in achuete (annatto), in soy sauce, in plain vinegar—a good introduction for foreigners to what many consider as quintessential Filipino cooking. For local tourists, it gives interesting variety to home cooking.
The alimango (mud crab) could have been simply steamed (halabos), but the chef decided to show off by cooking this Palawan specialty in coconut milk, with green kangkong (water spinach) added to provide a color contrast to the red crab and white milk.
All those calories needed to be burned off the next day in our private pool with a view of El Mestizo, a mountain whose peaks resemble the profile of a slumbering giant with a long nose. It was cold because it had rained the day before, but that only meant a more strenuous workout was needed. Breakfast offered “healthy” alternatives like whole wheat malunggay pandesal and power juice drinks. But conventional breakfast items were also available, good to fill the stomach for the ride to the Underground River.
A Palawan-inspired dinner
Over lunch and dinner the previous day, we had chatted about cooking with local ingredients from the sea, waterways and land, and how a resort like Daluyon should offer these ingredients. The restaurant took up the challenge and served a dinner menu that illustrated the possibilities of a Palawan cuisine.
The appetizer was comprised of three kinds of seaweed—the grape-like lato (ar-arosep) as salad, guso with its green branches presented as atsara (pickle) and lukot, looking like spaghettini noodles made into kinilaw. The lukot is supposedly not a seaweed but the secretion of a kind of mollusk, but that’s getting too technical and doesn’t take away from how good it tasted, seaweed or not.
Next came a shellfish broth made with a variety called parus that can only be found at the Cabayugan river in Sabang. It was cooked like binacol, the broth mixed with the juice of buko (young coconut) and lemongrass, then served in a buko shell.
For the main course, the principle was to not do too much with the fresh fish. We had two kinds of fish found in Palawan—sorahan or suran with its leathery skin and protrusion in the head, and lipti with yellow polka dots on its skin. Both were grilled, served with a Filipino toyomansi (soy sauce and calamansi) dipping sauce and a very Continental lemon cream sauce. The other course was squid stuffed with chopped tomato, onion, cucumber and spring onion then also grilled. To accompany the dishes, rice with bamboo shoots was also served and was good by itself.
Somehow vacation fare needs that little extra something, so we had cocktails. At Daluyon, the bartender knew how to prepare really good drinks like margaritas and martinis, and to pour good wine. But the ultimate were the desserts of cheesecake, mousse with berry compote, their version of L’Opera, mango napoleon and banana turron à la mode.
At our farewell lunch, just before the long trip to the airport, the chef cooked native chicken in tuba (coconut wine). The prospect of going home to Manila for his monthly leave must have inspired him.
And then it was back to downtown Puerto Princesa, with a short stop to pick up pasalubong—French baguette from Viet Ville and Palawan’s cashew nuts, still expensive but worth the price.
Daluyon Resort’s Green Appeal
Daluyon Resort boasts high-end amenities and even a pool in each cabana, but it is also proudly eco-friendly. It is to the credit of Palawan that many of its residents are concerned about the ecology and are doing something to preserve it, just like at Daluyon.
The proprietor and our guide Butch Tan Jr. gave us an ecology awareness tour through a bakawan (mangrove) forest. The scene could have been from a horror flick— trees with their roots exposed suddenly coming to life and walking towards you. While unattractive, those mangrove trees preserve the environment, filter the waters of the sea, provide protection to growing fish and also protect shoreline residents from storm surges. That’s the gist of what the mangrove guardians told us in their own words as well as in song as they rowed our boat through the watery pathway. There is also a boardwalk where lessons can be taught to those eager to learn more, like which trees are male or female, what snakes can be found near which clump of leaves. At the end of the trip, we had to do our part by planting a germinated seed on the shore where it will grow to be one of those scary trees that do a lot of good.
Inside the resort, residents may not be aware of all its eco-friendly features. To become a green resort involves different degrees of action that can range from small (lighting tea lights with fuel from used cooking oil) to huge (using an LPG fired air-conditioning and water heating system that saves up to 60 percent of conventional electricity cost). Other efforts include using solar power for lighting, harvesting rain water for washing, installing inverter air-conditioners and recycling water to use in gardening. These efforts earned for Daluyon Beach and Mountain Resort the 2014-2016 Asean Green Hotel Award.
It’s all very organized, the trip to the famous Underground River. No one can just show up as everything is arranged beforehand. The guide serves as the oarsman, and has a spiel for every stalactite and stalagmite formation. Did we see the celery, the carrot, the Holy Family? One of the boat passengers has to man the spotlight and point it to where the oarsman directs his spiel. It isn’t a long trip but it does make an impression. Here, preserved, is one of the wonders of the world. It deserves the reverent hush it elicits especially under the huge dome during the middle of the tour, which feels as if one were inside a church or a mosque or a temple.Tour arrangements, please contact Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) Main Office at (048) 434-2509. For Daluyon’s guests, book through (0917) 826-9989 or email [email protected]
How odd that a former Vietnamese village and its remaining restaurant are a must-visit in Puerto Princesa. But Viet Ville is a part of Palawan’s history, since Vietnamese refugees were processed here in the 1970s before they immigrated to the United States. The refugees made such an impact on Palawan’s cuisine that today, the chao long (supposed to be rice porridge) is one food that the locals consider their own.
At the restaurant, we had the familiar pho bo or beef noodle soup and a shrimp sour soup very much like our sinigang. Thit nuong or pork barbecue plus lapu-lapu in tausi completed the meal, almost as if the menu was geared for the Filipino eater. The cooks, Le-thé Ngoc Minh and Pham thé Anh, are Vietnamese. They both came here from Saigon after the fall of Vietnam, married Filipinos and decided to stay. Le-thé Ngoc Minh’s son, Armando, serves as the waiter as well as bakes the French bread for the banh mi thit, a sandwich of roasted pork.Brgy. Sta. Lourdes, Puerto Princesa, Palawan. Call (0905) 241-5854, (0908) 192-7788
Photographys by Cheryl Borsoto Nasol
This story first appeared on Food Magazine April - May 2014.