I’ve been regaled once or twice with travel stories of Maranao food served in intricate silver and copper bowls. Just imagine the food setting, looking both traditional and regal, worthy of a royalty. That was enough to spark my curiosity about this little known regional cuisine. It’s fascinating since Muslim Mindanao food has a lot of similarities with Malaysian cuisine. This gastronomic affinity is expected as Malaysia is geographically closer to Mindanao than the rest of the country.
The rule of thumb, when in Manila and you find yourself craving for Halal or Muslim food, is to follow where the mosques are. Quiapo has a good number of eateries, food stalls and vendors offering Halal food, particularly Maranao food. Vendors sell all kinds of staple Maranao herbs and spices such as sakurab (tiny onion bulbs), kalawag (turmeric powder), and that spicy side dish; palapa, a main component of many Maranao dishes.
A few meters away from Baclaran church are tiny food stalls hawking some interesting Maranao food. Once you spot the food warmers full of viands in yellowish tint, one is pressed to stop out of curiosity.
Maranao food has less meat, more vegetables and are distinct with their yellow tint because of the prevalent use of turmeric. Maranaos have a different way of cooking with coconut, instead of just extracting the milk, they mix the grinded and toasted coconut meat in the dish.
We sat with Maranaos who ate with their hands that were protected with plastic bags. Halal Maranao food is traditionally eaten with bare hands but the plastic is a necessity in this gritty parts of Manila. We choose to eat with utensils and had the following:
Big chunks of green langka (jackfruit) cooked with turmeric, grinded coconut meat, chili powder and palapa. This was fiery dish. I had to sip water each time I took a bite and I was sweating profusely.
Puso ng saging (banana blossoms) with red beans.
Labong (bamboo shoots), palapa and turmeric. One of the best labong dishes I’ve had, ever. The flavor is delicately balanced and has enough of that labong tartness.
White beans with coconut milk, palapa and turmeric.
Nilagang repolyo, sitaw at kalabasa, this was the eureka of the day because it tastes exactly like nilagang baboy or baka, but it has no meat whatsoever. The kalabasa or squash gave it the manamis-namis (delicately sweet) smack.
And the more exotic fare; kapeng dahon (coffee leaves) and cassava leaves. This was a simple boiled soup of coffee leaves and cassava leaves, galunggong fish, chili, and tomatoes. Cassava leaves is a staple in tasty Indonesian Padang food. I can’t quite define the taste of coffee leaves, but it tastes more leafy and chewy, than common leafy veggies in the local market such as kangkong. However when you eat the coffee leaves and cassava leaves together, it has a bitter after taste.
Our total bill came to a whopping Php 60.00. The cheapest I’ve paid for a big savory meal.
Diamond, the food stall owner, while puffing a cigarette annotated about Maranao food while we were eating.
“Kung nanghihina ka, kumain ka ng Maranao food. Pagpapawisan ka, magaan ang pakiramdam.” Diamond said. She’s pertaining to turmeric’s potent healing properties and the Maranao’s preference for hot and spicy flavors.
“Ang pagkain ng Muslim hindi naman laging maanghang pero kaming mga taga-Lanao mas gusto namin maanghang.” Diamond adds.
I asked her more questions about unusual Maranao ingredients like coffee leaves. The coffee leaves are flown in straight from Mindanao by way of pakiusap, when a friend or an acquitance, is flying to Manila. She mentioned a slew of unusual ingredients that I can’t barely remember the names.
Maranao cuisine is what connects us to our South East Asian roots. What we could be eating if not conquered by Spanish for 300 years. It adds a whole new dimension and diversity to Filipino cuisine.