The cuisine of the Muslim South is an unknown to most Filipinos, specially to Manila-grown city boys like me. But I’ve always been curious about them, knowing these peoples have strong cultural links to Malaysia and Indonesia, and indeed, to the ancient Hindu kingdoms of Southeast Asia that pre-dated Islam. That pretty much captures me with multiple hooks – I’m nuts for history, I’m nuts for Indian food, and I’m nuts for travel specially around Mindanao – so when offered the chance to cover a Pakarajan, a Kagan cultural festival, by Sonja Garcia for her Epanaw Foundation, I of course jumped.
I would find another reason to jump, though, at my first taste of Kagan food. It was HOT! And it was good!
My main takeaway from this experience was my introduction to Tinu, the Kagan’s spicy sambal of toasted coconut, basil, onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric and chilis. Making it is a labor of love, for it has to be pounded for an hour to get the right consistency. I was able to replicate the recipe later at home, but with a food processor, I wasn’t able to get it tasting quite as good. Across Southeast Asia, it seems, mortar and pestle are held far superior to chopping when it comes to preparing fresh herbs and spices. Pounding really releases those lovely essential oils, making for a really nice aroma and flavor.
This is the finished Tinu; it’s been pounded until the coconut oil started seeping out, turning the dry mix of ingredients into an incredibly fragrant, sticky paste.
These two dishes have Tinu as their key ingredient; above is Kagikit, a dish of flaked fried fish tossed in tinu, and below is Tinuwan na Manok, a native chicken (boiled into submission – they’re as tough as the highlanders that raise em!) cooked a second time in tinu. Both are rightly considered festival foods, as there’s definitely something colorful to their flavor. Which in my case was mostly red – red cheeks, red ears, red nose! Woo hoo!
I also discovered the Kagikit went best with these spicy fried herb crepes, Suabay. I’m guessing they’re pre-Islamic in origin too, as our guide described them as formerly being made only when someone was sick; the Kagans would place Suabay and other goodies in miniature houses and offer them up for the patient’s healing. Sounds like the use of spirit houses in Thai and Cambodian religion to me. Now, our guide said, they just enjoy Suabay as a festival treat. Anyway, they’re really good for scooping up the flaky Kagikit, just like you would use an Indian roti.
Now I want to organize culinary tours to the Kagan communities. My fellow Pinoys have to know about this!