You know your trip is off to a good start, when the first words you are greeted with are: “Kain na po!” (Let’s eat!). We had just set foot ashore Caringo Island in the coastal town in Camarines Norte in the Bicol region. Home to a small community of fishing families, Caringo is the furthest of the seven islands of Mercedes, yet it is well worth getting to. The invitation to eat — and the sight of the island itself — was very welcome.
The sand on the island was blindingly white in the noontime sun. Seashells adorned the branches of driftwood lining the shore while colorful flags fluttered in the wind, echoing the colors of the wooden fishing boats. For the benefit of the local TV crew I was traveling with, girls clad in Hawaiian grass skirts and floral bikinis greeted our group with a lively dance number.
Waiting for us under the shade was a gorgeous spread of home-cooked dishes highlighting local flavors and ingredients. At the center of the table were large pieces of inihaw na surahan – grilled unicorn fish infused with lemongrass lying on plates lined with banana leaves. Fried fish locally known as abo was drizzled with sweet and sour sauce and slices of fresh tomato. There was Ginataang Manala or octopus swimming in an inky sauce of coconut milk and topped with slices of fresh chili.
Underneath the charred skin of the fish with a pointed horn was white and flaky meat. The subtle smoky flavor of the grilled fish lent itself well to the fragrant hints of lemongrass. Doused in the popular Pinoy condiment of soy sauce and calamansi, it was perfect. The octopus was surprisingly good. The meat was not rubbery at all, and the sauce had a unique creamy and salty flavor that brought out flavors of the ocean.
The most interesting dish was Ginataang Tuhad-Tuhad sa Kalabasa – small seashells cooked in creamy coconut milk with tender squash. The way to get the meat from the snails is to suck it out of the shell’s opening.
A few of us had trouble getting the meat out and had to pry and poke at it a bit with our forks. The meat, once you get to it has a slightly rubbery texture similar to oysters or mussels. It comes out in an elongated spiral for those who care to look, but it’s best eaten straight doused with lots of sauce. I couldn’t help thinking how great it would go with beer.
Though it can get messy, meals like these are best enjoyed with bare hands. There’s really something about the fresh ocean breeze that makes people hungrier. Travelers know that diets must be put on hold when faced with such a spread. It would be disrespectful not to honor the women who had prepared the food by eating only a little, I told myself while piling a large second serving of food and drizzling sauce all over my rice.
To wash it all down, there were slices of fresh watermelon. That’s always a welcome treat on the beach.
After a leisurely snorkeling trip and boat ride to a nearby coral sanctuary, we got a second round of unique snacks and hands-on cooking lessons from members of the community. Locals of Caringo engage in wild seaweed farming and one of their specialties is gulaman (gelatin) made out of seaweed.
Luz Bermas, a barangay kagawad and island local, demonstrated how to make the dessert, which is made from fresh seaweed, milk, sugar, calamansi and mango bits. First the seaweed is boiled in water with calamansi to soften it. Then, it’s strained through a cheesecloth to derive the gelatin like texture. Luz added sugar and milk and boiled the mixture again. The last step was to add mango bits for flavoring before it’s put in bowls to set and cool down. The result, is a sweet, refreshing and delicious dessert. According to Luz, harvesting and making the gulaman is very labor-intensive, and they don’t have a steady market for it yet. So right now, the island is the only place you can try this delicious treat.
Luz’s husband, Magellan showed us how to prepare binu-tong, a Bicolano delicacy made of glutinous rice, coconut milk or cream, sugar, anise flavoring, and a bit of salt. The native dish tastes similar to suman, but it’s wrapped in little triangular packets of banana leaves.
The first step is to wash the glutinous rice, then soak it in water for about 30 minutes. After removing the water, you have to add the coconut cream, sugar and dash of salt. The banana leaves are used for wrapping the rice. The leaves need to be softened so it wont tear easily before putting it in a small bowl to serve as a mold. Then, scoop half a cup of the rice mixture into the bowl, secure the edges to make a pouch, then bind the package with string. The pouches are then placed in a pot of hot water, and are covered and cooked for about an hour over medium to low heat. Serve warm for the best effect.
Binu-tong is traditionally eaten for breakfast or merienda by locals. Insider tip: choose the package that looks really soaked so you’re sure it has lots of gata as the creamiest ones taste the best. You can eat this as is or sprinkle brown sugar over it for added sweetness. This goes great with coffee or hot chocolate or ripe mango.
It was humbling to see how much care and preparation goes into seemingly simple dishes that we normally take for granted. I savored each dish as slowly as I could while taking in the view. Sometimes, it’s the simplest meals that taste the best.