Why Iloilo is the ‘food haven’ of the Philippines

By Dom Galeon

Iloilo is a city on the rise. Development is up, with the recently opened Festive Walk Mall at the heart of Megaworld’s Iloilo Business Park, which is also home to ILOMOCA, the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art, two luxurious hotels–The Richmonde Iloilo and Courtyard by Marriott, Iloilo Convention Center, and local and international businesses. Tourism is up, which is no surprise, since the province offers a wide range of activities you can enjoy, with access to the nearby island of Guimaras.

Then there’s food. The culinary scene in Iloilo is one that begs to be noticed, and notice it you will. In fact, a gastronomy tour of the city is one of the activities you go to Iloilo for. When you do, you would notice how the food scene in Iloilo is not to be taken lightly.

Here are five reasons why Iloilo is the “Food Haven” of the Philippines:

1. Diverse resources. A great deal of what sets Iloilo apart from some of the country’s other food capitals is its access to abundant produce from both the land and the sea.

Oysters in La Paz Market.

Local crops are grown in various parts of the Western Visayan islands of Panay and Negros. “Because we have uplands and lowlands, we have sugarcanes, we have fruit trees, we have rice—black rice and red rice—and we even have strawberries,” says local celebrity chef and culture and cuisine champion Tibong Jardeleza. “All the vegetables from Baguio, although smaller, we have them here in Negros and in Iloilo.”

Iloilo also rests by the shore of the Panay Gulf, and part of the local livelihood is fishing. “It comes from the territory,” says Chef Tibong. “We have the bounties of the sea. The dried fish all over the Philippines — the premium dried fish — comes from Estancia or from Roxas.” In Iloilo, one can try various kinds of seafood, from the huge cruzan crabs to the beautiful diwal or angel shellfish, all freshly served.

2. A rich culinary tradition. Unlike the usual way of preparing dishes in other provinces, Ilonggos don’t rely on using artificial flavorings. What they do, instead, is to bring out the flavor of the ingredients themselves. Local vegetable dishes, like the laswa and the ginisa nga alugbati sa ginaling na karne, are prepared in a manner that allows the flavor of each ingredient to come out. It’s interesting to note that these two dishes have almost the same ingredients, but their tastes are not at all similar.

“The Ilonggo way of cooking does not interfere with the flavors. We might coat it with a little sauce but we do not marinate it more than necessary, so it doesn’t overpower the natural flavors of the main ingredients,” Chef Tibong explains.

Empanada by Prechy Peñaranda.

Each dish comes out with a distinctive flavor, simple and not complicated, brought out by this unique way of preparing food. Other than the natural ingredients, most Ilonggo dishes have sinamak, which is the province’s version of vinegar made from tuba. Iloilo also has endemic souring ingredients. They grow their own kadyos (pigeon pea), batwan (or batuan), and alumpiran leaves that taste sour and spicy.

3. Preserved history. Just like most of Philippine cuisine, Ilonggo food comes from foreign traditions. “The influences of various cultures—Spanish, Mexican, American, Japanese—can be seen in the dishes,” says Chef Tibong. “But the best thing here is we use our local ingredients.”

The difference is, as he points out, Ilonggos have managed to preserve this culinary heritage but without losing their local touch. Like the city itself, Iloilo’s dishes are a perfect blend of foreign heritage and local flavor.

4. Seven districts, each with a major public market that is in itself a destination. Each of Iloilo’s seven districts — the city proper, Jaro, Molo, La Paz, Villa Arevalo, Mandurriao, and Lapuz — has something unique to offer, and each of these also has a growing food industry and its own culinary tricks passed on from generation to generation. Each of the public markets, particularly the Iloilo Central Market, the Jaro Big Market, and the La Paz Public Market, in the city’s seven districts is host to numerous food stalls and shops. Even street food is made special.

Pulot made from palm sugar.

One of the things that catch the attention of a tourist in Iloilo is the abundance of restaurants. Every block seems to have one. “The restaurants here are abundant, and most of these are local players,” Chef Tibong says. “They created their own food.”

5. Romance with food. For Chef Tibong, the last reason why Iloilo is the “Food Haven” of the Philippines is the people and almost everyone in Iloilo can cook.

“Every Ilonggo has a specific cooking talent. You go to their houses and they’re cooking the traditional way,” he explains.

“It’s the same process of cooking but the ingredients make them flavorful. If you notice, unlike in Manila or any part of the Philippines where everyone has their own version of adobo, in Iloilo the adobo is the same. All the adobo achuete, in particular, has the same flavor,” Chef Tibong says. “It’s the love of food. We want to cook, we love eating,” he says.

In a country that delights in preparing food and, of course, eating, it’s not surprising that many provinces or regions lay claim over one dish or another. There’s Pampanga, which prides itself as the culinary capital of the country and where the locals’ love for food is palpable, with dishes that tend to be a bit more on the exotic side—like the fried frog legs and the crunchy crickets. Meanwhile, Iloilo’s tastes are bit more ordinary. But it is in this simplicity where the dishes shine.

“That’s the beauty of Ilonggo cuisine: It’s cooked simply,” Chef Tibong adds. “It’s boiled, it’s steamed, but each has a distinctive, memorable taste.” (Reprinted from Manila Bulletin, July 8, 2018)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2018 issue.