Notes & Essays

How the Cuisine of Mindanao Reflects the Island's Unique Identity

Food and the imagination of a nation.
IMAGE COURTESY OF YUMMY
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Thoughts of nation turn toward the things that make a nation what it is: culture, language, an identity for its people. There are more practical concerns, of course, like sovereignty and all the bells and whistles that tell the world that, indeed, this is a nation—and those are things that the international community, the family of nations, if you will, accept and recognize officially.

The Republic of the Philippines is young as nations go, barely 150 or so years old. But the varied cultures of the people of this archipelago were here even before the country was colonized. They were here before this republic was even called the Philippines—and before it was a republic whose sovereignty was recognized by other nations.

Let’s focus on food for now.

Before the colonizing Spaniards brought adobo to the archipelago, there already were regional cuisines with their own distinct flavors and traditions. Our indigenous culinary traditions were already set before this nation was a nation, and before it was called Las Islas Filipinas.

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Let’s pick an island. Not Luzon. Mindanao. The large island down south has a distinct set of culinary flavors that is distinct from the cuisines of the other islands. The Tausug of the Sulu Archipelago and the Zamboanga Peninsula have piyanggang chicken and tiyulah itum, dishes that are prepared for celebrating life’s milestones.

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Tiyulah itum, also called tiyula sug, is a very special dish with a black soup served at weddings, and is a mainstay at most other celebrations. It is black, or a greenish–dark gray color from the burnt coconut that is added to create the dish’s distinct flavor. Burnt coconut is an ingredient that is used often in the Tausug culinary environment.

The meat used for tiyulah itum is rubbed with pamapa (burnt coconut paste and spices that may include pounded ginger and garlic). The beef is braised with fried onion and garlic, then turmeric, ginger, and chopped galangal (langkuwas) are added, along with broth, then simmered. The process of preparing tiyulah itum is communal, and it is usually the menfolk who cook this dish in most of the Tausug villages in Sulu Archipelago and Zamboanga Peninsula.

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Piyanggang chicken, is also blackened and flavored with burnt coconut paste, then simmered in coconut milk with onions, garlic and lemongrass. Piyanggang is also usually served at weddings and other special occasions and is, literally, a labor of love.

The Philippines is an archipelago of people who love their food. Every part of the country has its own native cuisines, each with their own names, histories and distinct identities.

Every now and then, though, you find people trying to identify native dishes they are unfamiliar with using more familiar terms—as is the case with tiyulah itum being called the “bulalo” of the south. They’ve said that about Bacolod’s kansi, too, and that is as much a mistake as calling tiyulah itum black bulalo.

This kind of cultural appropriation is inaccurate and, as Isabela City, Basilan Mayor Sitti Djalia Turabin-Hataman puts it: “We are always thrilled whenever anything about our culture is appreciated, but please don’t change their names. These names are hundreds of years old. If we are to know them, please let us know them by their names.” Turabin-Hataman’s lineage belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu, and she knows what she is talking about. 

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“Our identity begin with our names,” she said. “We understand the need to translate, so yes, tiyula itum literally translates to ‘black soup.’ Tiyula is tinola or soup, and itum is black. Bulalo is bulalo, tiyula itum is tiyula itum. Just as adobo can never be called by any other name.” 

Adobo, by the way is a method of cooking something in a dressing that contains a souring agent, most usually vinegar. Or that is how the Spanish put it. The Philippines’ adobo is uniquely Filipino, too, owing to the way Filipinos own it and have included it in the national identity the nation is still in the process of building. 

Names are important to us—names are a firm marker of our identity, after all—and imposing the names of other dishes that mainsteam Filipino society knows is a form of injustice. Since when was it good to perpetuate injustice? We have enough injustices committed by colonizers, including Filipinos who have not gained an appreciation for their compatriots from other parts of the country, like us. 

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We should not inadvertently throw shade on other less well-known, but just as beloved, icons of cultural heritage just because we are not yet familiar with them. Instead we can take this opportunity to increase our understanding and knowledge that these things, like tiyulah itum, offer to us.

If we want to bridge the cultural and historical divides within the diverse ethic groups in this country, let us begin at the dining table. Let us respect our food, know their names, and stop acting like these dishes are just flavor variants of what the people in the mainstream know and enjoy. 

Learning about one’s country requires having an open mind and a generous heart, and it is best to begin doing this with food.

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About The Author
Amir Mawallil
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Amir Mawallil is a Tausug writer based in Cotabato City. He is the founding chairperson of the Young Moro Professionals Network in western Mindanao.
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