Recipes once carefully kept inside bauls for decades, and prepared by families behind closed doors, is finally seeing the light of day for everyone’s enjoyment. The move was initiated by the local government of Samar, to boost tourism, revenues, and livelihood in a region that has long been overlooked as a possible vacation destination.
Dubbed the “Secret Kitchens of Samar,” the campaign wants to introduce the public to the rich and tasty array of Samarnon cuisine we did not even know existed. According to Samar Region’s Governor Michael Tan, families got used to closely guarding their heirloom recipes and being very choosy about who they share them with even among family members. “When people cook, they close the doors and windows of the house. Each family wants to be known for a specialty…(and) recipes are handed down from generation to generation only to select members of the family,” Tan explains.
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Persuading the families to share these kitchen secrets took a bit of work. After being convinced about the potential benefits to the region, however, some eventually relented, allowing us a peak into their once secret trove of gastronomic specialties.
Savory Pork Dishes
Although the province is abundant in seafood, it is evident that Samarnons love their pork— the fatter and richer the preparation, the better. This was probably influenced by the Spanish and Chinese.
One of these heirloom recipes, for instance, is the Samar version of Tamale. A Mexican dish adopted by the Spanish, the specialty is referred to as Tamalos in the region. Their version is made with thick cuts of pork belly, smothered in thick and creamy peanut sauce, and wrapped in rice wrapper and banana leaves before steaming. It is bigger, richer and, yes, fattier, but made with the freshest, homemade ingredients.
Juliana Samson, 66, makes her Tamalo using only homemade peanut butter. She explains that store-bought peanut butter simply will not do. The homemade peanut butter gives a thicker and fuller peanut sauce that aptly compliments the richness of the pork fat, made tastier by steaming — while wrapped in banana leaves — for two full hours. Her heirloom recipe takes three days to make, from choosing and preparing ingredients, to making the peanut butter, to the actual cooking of the Tamalos. Samson is now one of a growing number of Samarnons who have agreed to share their family recipes to the public.
A usual partner of the Tamalos during celebrations is the equally tasty, Pork Humba. Chinese in origin, the dish uses braised pork hock or belly. It is similar to adobo except its cooked with salted black beans and additional spices. What makes the Samar version different is the use of young coconut leaves or palaspas, which is layered on a clay pot before placing the marinated pork inside. The concoction is then cooked on a fire wood stove for four hours. The more tedious and organic cooking process just makes the dish more tender and distinctly flavorful.
Bola Catalana, on the other hand, is Samar’s version of the popular embutido. Their process involves wrapping the usual pork mixture in a thin layer of pork fat before baking, for that elevated flavor.
Of course, no Filipino feast is complete without the traditional lechon or roasted pork suckling. Samar’s version is another game changer, with its stuffing of lemon grass, star anise, and red chilies, making it so tasty one can eat it without the usual liver sauce.
A typical compliment to all these flavorful dishes is their very own kesong puti called keseo, made from fresh cow’s milk. They pair the above dishes with the keseo along with white rice, to help wash down their rich flavors. Their version is much saltier but surprisingly blends perfectly with their specialties and with rice.
Rice and Cassava Cakes
Rice and cassava cakes are a common Filipino snack and dessert which comes in many forms, colors and varieties. But Samar has cooked up its own delightful interpretations.
Take the common puto for example. Their version called black puto uses black, glutinous rice instead of white flour, and is infused with fresh, coconut milk. This twist to the regular steamed rice cake gives it a richer texture and flavor that will make you want more.
Another puto variant is the Puto Conserva, a toasted rice cake with yummy coconut fillings and sugar that deliver just the right amount of sweetness.
Samarnons also offer a variety of mouth-watering cakes made from cassava and other root crops. The most popular ones are the Sagmani and Binagol which both originated from Leyte. Both rich in sweetness, flavor, and texture, they are the best-selling delicacies of Eastern Visayas.
The Binagol is especially attractive because of its unique packaging. The Samarnon version makes use of a root crop called Talyan, which they grind with condensed milk, then mix with latik, before cooking in coconut shells wrapped in banana leaves. What is later unwrapped is a sweetly flavorful and filling cake, guaranteed to satisfy any sweet tooth.
Apart from heirloom recipes and baked goods, Samar is also a good source of seafood, thanks to its abundant marine life.
Over at the remote coastal town of Pagsanghan for instance, comes some of the best mud crabs in the country. The crabs are harvested in fish ponds every six months, and sold in various cities in the Vis-Min region and in Metro Manila. Though still a blossoming industry, the mud crabs can cost up to Php 1,600 per kilo during the peak months of December to February, depending on the size. In addition, Pagsanghan is also the source for oysters, prawns, and scallops in the province.
Another coastal town called Jiabong is known for harvesting mussels or tahong. which they have creatively developed into their own version of popular dishes such as adobo, tahong express, barbeque, and nuggets, among others.
The Secret Kitchen Tourism Campaign
These dishes and other food products will soon be offered in restaurants and resorts in Samar’s tourist areas. Food maps will be provided to help visitors easily locate the specialties per location, and cooking demonstrations by the owners of the prized heirloom recipes may be organized in the near future.
“Eventually we will have immersions in homes with the families who own the recipes,” said Mike Cristobal, Samar Tourism Department’s Planning Officer.
Thanks to all these efforts, what were once best-kept secrets can soon be savored and enjoyed by all.