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Discover Iloilo one dish — and page — at a time

By LAI S. REYES, The Philippine STAR Published Nov 03, 2022 5:00 am

Naka kaon ka na? (Have you eaten yet?)” is how the Ilonggos greet everyone they meet. And so, if you’re someone’s guest in the “City of Love,” you can be assured that you will never go hungry.

“Food is the language of love for the Ilonggos,” shares renowned Ilonggo chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza Jr. “We have mastered the art of feeding our guests over the years.”

For me, a city where everybody invites you to eat is, indeed, the happiest place on Earth. Happiness was served in every restaurant, carinderia, and local bakery we visited — tucked in just about every corner of the streets — during our recent trip to the city.

And in every simmering bowl of batchoy, spoonful of KBL (kadyos, baboy, langka) or huge bite of chicken, you can feel the warmth of the Ilonggo hospitality.

“Each meal evokes warm feelings that tie people back to their roots,” adds chef Tibong at the launch of Flavors of Iloilo, a cookbook specially dedicated to Ilonggo cuisine, which he authored.

La Paz Batchoy (miki noodle soup) by chef Tibong (Some of the food shots, which were lifted from Flavors of Iloilo cookbook, have the permission of the author.) Photos by JOSHUA JAMES ENRIQUEZ

The wonderful Flavors of Iloilo

A culmination of chef Tibong’s deep dive into Ilonggo gastronomy, the 200-page cookbook showcases the wonderful flavors of Iloilo. From more well-known Ilonggo fare such as Pancit Molo, chicken binakol, and kansi (the Ilonggo version of bulalao and sinigang combined) to dishes most readers have not had the pleasure of experiencing, like patang nilaga (a hearty soup made of cow intestines, heart, tendons, and tripe simmered in a vat of soda-spiked broth for six hours) and Agta Nga Manok sa Sibut kag Miswa (black chicken with Chinese herbs and fine wheat noodle soup), there is no dearth of inspiration here.

For the Ilonggos

Edited by food writer/editor Michaela “Micky” Fenix and designed by award-winning book designer, visual artist and food writer Ige Ramos, Flavors of Iloilo is a project of Iloilo City Mayor Jerry P. Treñas and his wife, Rosalie Sarabia-Treñas, for the Ilonggos.

What makes the book special is the fact that the chef has tested every recipe to find the perfect temperatures, ingredients, techniques, and beyond.

“Through this book, we hope to strengthen our identity as Ilonggos and promote the city as a premier culinary destination in Western Visayas and the Philippines,” enthused Mayor Treñas during the book launch at SM City Iloilo.

Iloilo City Mayor Jerry P. Treñas and wife Rosalie Sarabia-Treñas at the launch of Flavors of Iloilo at SM City Iloilo

The amiable mayor and his wife Rosalie handpicked and collaborated with chef Tibong to come up with a cookbook that would showcase the (food) culture, tradition, and history of Iloilo.

“Chef Tibong has always been at the forefront of promoting Ilonggo heritage food and always does projects to promote Ilonggo food as a tourist attraction in the ‘City of Love,’” shares Rosalie, Flavors of Iloilo project executive director, who looked radiant in a modern Filipiniana dress.

Home-cooks, chefs, various restaurants, and epicures from all over the Western Visayan province also took part in the book project.

Tatlo ka Klase nga Kinilaw (Trio of Vinegar-cured seafood) by chef Tibong Ginisa nga Uhong (sautéed native mushroom) by Francisca Jiz de Ortega Jardeleza

Mayor Treñas shared his family’s Chicken Galantina and Bacalao recipes, which also happen to be Rosalie’s specialties.

According to Rosalie, the Sarabias have been in the food business for more than 35 years now. Her family owns the Sarabia Manor Hotel, which was built in the 1970s.

“In 1983, I opened my own Tavern Pub and Restaurant, which many might remember as their hangout in the ’80s. This gave me the chance to cook and serve food that Ilonggos craved for. My mantra then was “Good food, good company, and good music,” she recalls.

Chicken barbecue by chef Tibong

Today, two of her children are at the helm of Carlo’s Bakeshop and Cafe, which is named after her son Carlo.

“And so, making this cookbook definitely brought back a lot of memories,” Rosalie adds.

The “Panam-is (Dessert)” section of the book features the decadent treats — Mango Buttercream Cake, Canonigo, Buko Lychee Ice Cream, Potato Praline Cake, and Iba Tart (baked bilimbi) — of Maridel Uygongco of the famous Maridel’s bakeshop in Iloilo City.

Richmonde Hotel general manager Natalie Lim is one of the content contributors of the cookbook.

Mango Buttercream Cake by Maridel Padilla Uygongco of Maridel’s

According to Rosalie, it took the team less than a year to finish the cookbook.

“We had to convince the people of Iloilo to buy into our idea, to contribute some of their families’ best-kept culinary secrets, to donate, and help us with printing cost,” she says, adding, “Browsing through this cookbook is like going back in time — rediscovering our own kitchens and the delicious food we grew up with. The book is a data bank, a reference of our childhood memories.”

Meet the chef

Flavors of Iloilo is also a homage to “generations of cooks, of tables filled with good food surrounded by family members and loved ones.”

And there is no better person for that job than chef Tibong, the purveyor of the tagline “Iloilo: The Food Haven of the Philippines.”

In 2013, he founded the Tabu-an Annual Heritage Cooking Competition, which is now in its ninth year. 

Chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza Jr., author of Flavors of Iloilo

He is also the mover behind the Sabores de Visayas, a gala dinner set in heritage venues in Iloilo City, and the Ilonggo Night Market and Street Food Festival, in partnership with the Department of Tourism Region VI, with then regional director Atty. Helen Catalbas.

Indeed, the cookbook is a long time coming, not only for the City of Iloilo, but also for chef Tibong.

“Before I got the call from Rosalie, I was already in the middle of gathering recipes for a cookbook project — with my cousin,” he relates.

In fact, the book already had a working title, Mga Secret Recipes ni Lola Esca. Esca is the name of the chef’s grandmother, who cooked every day for her eight children.

“She was my culinary icon,” adds chef Tibong. “But Rosalie’s offer was too tempting to resist since I’ve always wanted to share with everyone the culinary heritage of our dear province.”

According to the chef, preparing the recipes for Flavors of Iloilo was the easiest part because “I have about 850 traditional recipes from all over the Western Visayas region.”

“The tedious part is choosing the dishes — the ones served on a daily basis, fiesta fares, and those served by Ilonggo families to their VIP guests — to include in the book, and standardizing the recipes. Home cooks like me don’t measure ingredients,” he adds. 

It also helped that chef Tibong has kept some of his family’s heirloom recipes, which had been passed on to him by his lola Francisca (Esca) and dad Afrique.

So much love and passion went into creating the book, which was completed in the record time of six months.

After the conceptualization, it took Micky, Ige, and chef Tibong four months to come up with the final recipes and photos to be included in the book.

“And another two months to do the final layout and editing,” shares chef Tibong.

What also makes the book special is the fact that the chef has tested every recipe to find the perfect temperatures, ingredients, techniques, and beyond.

“Mayor Jerry Treñas, his wife Rosalie, and I have the same dream: The longstanding desire to share Ilonggo cuisine and pay homage to generations of cooks,” shares chef Tibong. “And through their able leadership and the help of well-meaning friends, we made that dream a reality.”

“This book shows how rich and diverse the culture of Iloilo is,” notes Jose Maire Layson, president of the Iloilo Festivals Foundation Inc. and one of the benefactors of the book project. “We will continue to endeavor and support all the programs of the city that will promote our heritage, culture, and sustainable economic development.”

What also makes the cookbook a visual feast are the beautiful photos, flatware, cutlery and kitchen implements, all of which are owned by the Jardeleza family.

“We put a lot of work into this book for the Ilonggos to enjoy,” enthuses chef Tibong. “No one can claim this book but the Ilonggos.”

Stuffed kuyabog, kalabasa dulce de leche, batwan sorbets win top prize in 9th Tabu-An Ilonggo Heritage Competition

A stuffed week-old pigeon (kuyabog) cooked in tuba reduction sauce; a 45-day-old baboy talonun (wild boar); and Kalabasa Dulce de Leche and Batwan Sorbetes wowed the judges at the 9th Tabu-An Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition held recently at the Southpoint grounds, SM Iloilo.

These unusual flavor combinations that were well-executed by a team from Western Institute of Technology (WIT) in La Paz, Iloilo City had captivated the palates of The Raintree Restaurant Group corporate chef Kalel Chan, Linamnam restaurant founder and chef Don Patrick Baldosano, Stonehill Suites executive chef Don Angelo Colmenares, chef and cookbook author Angelo Comsti, and Tabu-An founder chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardeleza Jr.

A 45-day-old wild boar (baboy talonun) lechon is roasted to perfection.

“The winning dishes aren’t only innovative, but taste good as well,” said chef Chan. “The budding chefs also know their ingredients well, and exercised constraint in using them.”

WIT team members Achilles Capuso and Oscar J. Salazar III, and students Glecymar Tabares, France Louise Necitos, and Randy Salvilla bested nine other teams from different parts of Western Visayas.

WIT, which bagged the grand prize, also won first place in three categories: Appetizer, Main Course, and Dessert.

Western Institute of Technology instructor Achilles Capuso prepares the team’s winning dish: Stuffed kuyabog cooked in tuba reduction sauce.

“This is the third time that the school won in the annual competition,” says chef Tibong. “The same team won the top awards back in 2018 and 2019.”

“We did a lot of research on heirloom recipes and local ingredients that are not known to the younger generation of Ilonggos,” shares Capuso in an email interview.

The entries are judged according to flavor, innovation, use of local ingredients, and mise en place.

The annual Tabu-An Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cooking Competition is aimed at sustaining traditional Ilonggo heritage cuisine, and make it world-class not only in terms of flavor, but also in the way it’s presented.

“It’s my dream to make this competition a regional event,” enthuses chef Tibong, Tabu-An’s founder. “And we hope to do that next year, in time for Tabu-An’s 10th anniversary.”

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