“As someone who grew up in Zamboanga eating lots of Satti I can honestly say this restaurant’s Satti is on point! It’s as authentic as it can be," wrote a fan on Palm Grill's Facebook page. "Thank you Migz for saving me a plane ticket to Zamboanga.”
It's a compliment Jose Miguel "Migz" Moreno has heard before, in varying versions. Palm Grill, the restaurant he runs with his brother King, is perhaps the only restaurant specializing in Southern Mindanaoan cuisine in Manila, and it has done a good job in bringing the taste of the South to the metro's diners who grew up with their tiyula itums, pyanggang manok and, yes, sattis. Satti is a popular southern breakfast of spicy thick soup made from taro, tumeric, and tomato sauce and sticky rice balls. It is often paired with chicken wings or skwered beef, which is how its served in Palm Grill.
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For those of us just newly introduced to southern Mindanao food, familiarizing ourselves with its history and traditions help in fully appreciating the nuances of its flavors. Moreno finds that educating his diners about Southern cuisine, particularly those of the Tausug, is a necessary part of his job. “I am advocating southern Mindanaoan cuisine because we’re extremely proud of the culture and heritage,” he says. The restauranteur was born in Jolo but grew up in Zamboanga. He finished Nursing in Ateneo de Zamboanga University, and worked for a while in Abu Dhabi and Manila before he decided to put up Palm Grill.
To open a joint that serves Southern Mindanaoan cuisine takes courage and confidence, especially for a young restauranteur like Moreno. The cuisine of this region, specifically those common to Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, are hardly in the radar of most Pinoys unlike that of Bacolod, Cebu, Ilocos, or Quezon.
Moreno is personally in charge of the kitchen (his brother King takes care of operations), training the staff traditional skills he’s learned from his mom Melissa Cabel Moreno and grandmother Oswalda Alcantara Cabel. He was seven when he first got fascinated in the making of his hometown's dishes, after seeing his mother and their household help burn coconut to prepare pamapa, a powdered spice mix unique to the region and is used in many of its dishes.
The Palm Grill menu is composed of dishes the Moreno household grew up loving. Their Tiyula Itum or Black Bulalo, for example, is a fresh departure from the Tagalog’s usual bulalo in color and taste, yet brings the same comfort associated with the dish. You will not find the usual corn or cabbage in the bowl but you will discover how pamapa is used--it instantly turns the broth greenish-black and gives the soup a smoky flavor. At Palm Grill, the Tiyula Itum is topped with baked marrow served on its bone then torched in front of the customer--just to add a touch of Instagrammability.
The Beef Kolma has the same comforting, home-cooked quality. The beef is pleasingly tender and soaked in generous amounts of fresh gata. Palm Grill’s version is mixed with peanut butter to get that measure of sweetness most Filipinos like. Kolma is also one dish that remind us just how close Southern Mindanao is to our Malay brothers.
In the 13th century, the spice trade route covered areas of Mindanao particularly Sulu and neighboring Malay countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. The route reached all the way to India and the Middle East, which made making spices like curry and ginger common to all these places.“So may common denominator ang Southern Mindanao with Malaysia, Singapore, and even countries as far as India and the Arabic continents," says Moreno. "They all like to use spices like curry and ginger,” He adds that southern Mindanao dishes also involves a lot of slow cooking and grilling.
If there is one signature dish from his hometown which Moreno is advocating to popularize here in Manila, it is the Pyanggang Manok. At Palm Grill, it has been de-exoticized and now goes by the name Green Chicken. It is a dish common in Sulu, says Moreno. Palm Grill’s version involves marinating the chicken for 30 minutes in pamapa before grilling. The leftover marinade is then reduced to a thick sauce with hand-pressed coconut milk. The milk is then poured over the chicken. Pyanggang Manok is often served with another Moro staple, turmeric rice, and pickled radish.
If it can be helped, Moreno would rather describe his dishes as Southern Mindanao cuisine instead of Moro cuisine. After all, he says, what Palm Grill offers is, in its essence, Filipino food much like our sinigang, lechon, or adobo.
“Some would like to call it Moro cuisine but I don’t like to label it as such because I think food has no religion. It doesn't mean that when a Christian cooks adobo you will call it Christian adobo. You just call it adobo, right?” he argues.
Getting more Filipinos to appreciate the traditional and unique flavors and cooking of the South might take some time. Moreno, however, is on the right track in keeping its flavors in our consciousness through Palm Grill. His family also recently opened Pyanggang Manok, a fast-food establishment located in Star Mall in Mandaluyong. It offers the same Palm Grill specialties including Locon ala Zamboanga, or shrimp cooked in gata and aligue; Satti; and Zamboanga’s fresh fruit halo-halo called the Knicker Ice Treat.
“I know it’s far fetched for now but we’d like Filipinos to regard Mindanaoan cuisine as a staple food, just like the adobo or lechon," Moreno muses. Hopefully soon, Pyanggang Manok and many more dishes from the south will get their well-deserved place at the table of many Filipino homes and be one among many favorites that will remind us of comfort and home whether we’re from Mindanao or not.
Palm Grill is located at 179 Tomas Morato Ave, Diliman, Quezon City.
Photographs by Paola Aseron