Must-try Food in Zamboanga City
Zamboanga is a peninsula blessed with pink and white sand beaches, rich open seas, bird sanctuaries, historical sites, and beautiful parks. Being a city on a peninsula has also allowed Zamboanga City to capitalize on the Philippines’ marine resources. The city is sometimes called the “Sardines Capital of the Philippines,” and much of its economy and local way of life revolves around the industry.
But like I often say, the best way to capture the culture of any place, no matter how diverse it is, is through its dishes. Zamboanga City’s local lifestyle, sandy beaches, brightly colored vintas, historical landmarks, and natural landscapes can all be tasted in a bite—or at least here, several bites—of their local Chavacano cuisine. Here are some of the best dishes I was able to immerse myself in during my recent visit to Asia’s Latin City:
Tiulah Itum / Tiyulah Itum
The first thing that came into my mind when I saw my bowl of Tiulah Itum was “dinuguan.” However, it definitely had a different taste, despite looking very identical.
The Tiulah Itum is a beef-and-goat stew with a broth blackened with roasted coconut. Seasoned with spices and ginger, this bowl sent me on a roller coaster ride on Zamboanga’s flavors.
Kurma is a popular dish in the city. It is the local version of curry. My helping of kurma had the best texture and just the right amount of spice, probably caused by the careful braising of the meat in coconut milk during the dish’s preparation.
The local version of barbecue, Satti, was one of my favorites. The chicken and beef strips were grilled to crisp perfection. It was served with rice cooked inside woven coconut leaves. This dish was smothered in a thick spicy sauce like the two previous dishes.
You can sample Satti in various Satti places on Pilar Street.
Piyanggang Manuk / Pyanggang Manok
Piyanggang Manuk is a chicken dish made by boiling a chicken and then grilling it afterward. The chicken was characterized by its tender meat and the smoky flavor. This chicken dish was served with a very creamy blackened coconut curry sauce.
This dish is very similar to Lechon Cebu. There are several Lechon shops in Tetuan district, but the one we tried was slightly salty to my taste. Tetuan Lechon is usually paired with atsara and vinegar.
A flavorful blend of smoky grilled eggplant, mango, and salted egg, the Ensalada Chamba is a dish I could eat at any time of the day. The diced mangoes’ sweetness blended the dish’s flavors so well.
Ensalada Chamba is available at La Vista del Mar in Upper Calarian, Zamboanga City.
A traditional viand, the Chupa Kulo is a dish of cooked snails served with a thick, sauce-like broth made from squash and coconut milk.
The snails were not deshelled, so the meat stayed moist and flavorful inside. Eating the snail meat required sucking it out of the shell.
I was excited to try their local version of paella because I’m such a huge fan. Zamboanga was one of the places where the Spanish colonizers first established a settlement, and the paella was just one of the few influences they left in the peninsula.
I was so happy to try Paella Chavacana. My plate was generously topped with prawns, clams, peas, and green beans. The dish has some Spanish influence, but the local version was a true delicacy.
Another seafood dish we sampled was the Baked Imbao—a beautiful and flavorful plate of imbao, a type of small mangrove clam. The clam was naturally salty, but the butter and garlic toppings added more flavor and texture to the dish.
You can order Baked Imbao at La Vista del Mar and Alavar Seafood Restaurant in Don Alfaro St, Zamboanga City.
We were served a plate of lato, or the local term for sea grapes. The seaweed clusters were salty and mixed with unripe mangoes and a sauce created with a combination of shrimp paste and coconut milk.
Most restaurants in Zamboanga City serve Lato as one of their appetizers.
One of the most famous dishes in the peninsula is the curacha. The curacha, a giant sea crab and spiny lobster hybrid, is a rare crab abundantly found in Zamboanga and the nearby Sulu.
The dish can only be served and eaten fresh here. Unlike ordinary crabs, the bulk of the meat of the curacha was inside the crustacean’s body, not inside its claws. Eating it was a challenge, but it was certainly delish.
The best Curacha in Zamboanga is available in La Vista del Mar and Alavar Seafood Restaurant.
We tried a rather unique dish called oko-oko, a cooked sea urchin with rice inside it. The rice inside the sea urchin was sautéed and flavored, which blended well with the natural saltiness of the sea urchin. We were taught to eat oko-oko the traditional way, which involved cracking it like a boiled egg!
After much spice and sea salt, we started trying out the local desserts. The Knicker Bocker is the Chavacano version of halo-halo. My glass was filled with sliced frozen fruits, gelatin, and light strawberry ice cream on top. Yummy!
Knicker Bocker is available at Hacienda de Palmeras Hotel and Restaurant and in Palmeras at Paseo del Mar. Other restaurants also serve similar desserts, but Knicker Bocker is a trademark of Hacienda de Palmeras.
This delicacy was one of my favorites. Also called Zamboanga Rolls, this dessert, usually eaten as a snack, is made from fine rice flour and water. The thick mixture is then poured into a strainer with small holes, rolled, and fried in a pan. These crispy rolls had a very light and pleasing taste like a wafer.
Lokot-Lokot is available in most restaurants in Zamboanga.
Saging Prito / Saging Rebosao
One simple but truly delicious local food is Saging Prito, fried Saba bananas with a light coating of brown sugar. One interesting version of Saging Prito is the one served in Lantaka Hotel. It is served with coco jam dip.
Zamboanga has its own version of Tamales. Unlike in Pampanga with Pork, chicken, and Egg toppings, Zamboanga Tamales is stuffed with Vermicelli noodles and prawns.
I was really satiated when we finished sampling all the dishes served to us. Aside from the amount of food we ate, what made me fully satisfied with this culinary tour was that it encompassed the flavors of Zamboanga—from spicy, boiled, grilled meat, to vegetables, to seafood, to sweet desserts.
Coconut milk was a staple ingredient in most dishes, and it was interesting how its usage varied from one meal to another. The diversity of the flavors only served as a reminder that the Zamboanga peninsula and the entire Philippine archipelago is truly a colorful, beautiful country.
Many thanks to DOT Region 9, Tourism Promotions Board, and iTravel Tourist Lane (Phone: (062) 991 1174) for allowing us to experience Savores 2017.