Tawi-tawi is the Philippines southernmost province. Due to its relative inaccessibility as well as concerns about the peace and order situation in the surrounding areas, the island hasn’t been attracting as many travelers and tourists as other provinces in the country. This is a pity since it has lots to offer in terms of beautiful and historic sights, as well as interesting food.
Since Tawi-Tawi is an island province, I presumed that seafood would be plentiful. I also knew that pork would not be available, as it’s predominantly Muslim. I found out that most of the inns/hotels in Bongao, the capital town, have their own restaurants which serve regular Pinoy fare (mostly beef, chicken and seafood dishes). There are also a lot of carinderias (small eateries) and cafes if you want to try local specialties. If you’re planning a trip to Tawi-tawi, here are some of the dishes you can try out.
Agal-Agal (Seaweed): Tawi-Tawi is said to be the “Seaweed capital of the Philippines” and they even celebrate an Agal-Agal Festival every September to showcase their major industry. While most of the seaweed harvested by fishermen gets exported to other countries for processing, seaweed is commonly served as a side dish or salad in some eateries. It is mixed with onions, tomatoes and soy sauce, and goes great with fried or grilled fish.
Seafood: Tawi-Tawi has 307 islands and islets surrounded by waters teeming with rich marine life. High-value seafood like lobster, curacha, abalone, octopus, groupers (lapu-lapu) and sea centipede (alupihang dagat) are harvested in Tawi-Tawi’s waters. However, like seaweed, these are mostly exported by traders to Zamboanga City and beyond where they fetch a higher price. They’re also served in some restaurants like Sandbar Lepa (pre-orders required), but they’re a bit pricey. More affordable and available options include crabs, fresh fish and squid, which can be cooked in various ways.
We were fortunate to be staying in the same inn as two employees from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) who were doing a research project on Tawi-Tawi’s crabs. BFAR staffers Luz and Fe bought more than 10 kilos of crabs from the market and gathered tissue samples for testing. After they were done with their tests, we did our own research on the tastiness of the crustaceans. We had a buffet of fresh steamed crabs with calamansi and vinegar. This made me want to volunteer as an assistant on their next trip.
We sample a variety of other seafood dishes the next few days including squid, which can be cooked in a variety of ways: inihaw (grilled), calamares, or adobo-style (cooked in vinegar and soy sauce).
The fish dishes are cooked either fried, grilled, steamed, kinilaw (ceviche), as tinola or in sweet and sour sauce. I have to say that fish tastes so much better because it’s fresh. During lunch at Fatima Shara, a small eatery near the market in the downtown area, we got a sampling of different viands including a very refreshing kinilaw and barbecued fish.
The meal was served with side dishes of curried vegetables, tiyulah itum soup, seaweed salad (dipping sauce for the fish), buwas kuning (yellow rice) and syanglag (roasted grated cassava) which is used as an alternative for rice. Along with 4 orders of softdrinks and lots of rice, the meal cost only P275 for 4 people.
Tiyulah Itum: A beef stew with broth made from burnt coconut meat. The black color makes the dish look not so appetizing, but it’s actually quite good. It’s kind of like nilaga (beef stew) or bulalo (bone marrow soup), without the marrow, and with a very spicy flavor.
Junay: Rice steamed in coconut milk and toasted coconut. The rice is wrapped in little packets of banana leaves like suman. The packaging makes the rice easy to eat, and is ideal for a packed lunch since the wrapper is eco-friendly. This was perfect with fried fish and mango with soy sauce and sili during our island-hopping trip to Sangay Siapo Island. It costs about P5/for one serving.
Pastil: This mini-empanada filled with pancit bihon (rice noodles) is commonly found in snack houses around Tawi-tawi. It’s a bit on the bland side, but is decent when doused with hot & spicy vinegar. If you’re not that hungry, two to three pieces of this (which cost only P3/piece) can make a light snack or breakfast.
Knickerbocker: Apparently Tawi-Tawi has their own version of Knickerbocker (originally from Zamboanga City), a halo-halo/fruit salad dessert hybrid topped with ice cream. The one served at Mardo’s (P60/order) had an assortment of fresh fruits including melon, papaya, mango, banana, avocado, sweet corn, gelatin and was topped with mango ice cream. AMZ Snack House in the town center also has a pretty big serving of Halo-Halo (P30/for regular, P50/special). One order of the special is good for sharing.
Delicacies: I came across several Tawi-Tawi desserts and sweets being sold as souvenirs in Midway Plaza at the town center including Isikalang, Batang Burung & Baolu (P50/souvenir-sized packet).
Isikalang is a sugary biscuit made from flour, egg. butter, sugar, coconut milk and oil. Batang Burung is a crispy roll made from rice, sugar, milk, oil and flavoring (it comes in different flavors). Baolu is a sweet mini-muffin made from flour, sugar and water, which tastes like mamon. You can also buy bigger bags of these at the market for P100/bag and snack on them during your whole trip.
*NEW* Hot Moro Chili Powder: This wasn’t available during my trip, but a popular new product is Hot Moro, a brand of local chili powder that’s produced in Simunul Island. The local government started processing local chili called lara from Simunul farmers in the first quarter of 2014. According to an article published in Inquirer, the chili powder is popular in Tawi-Tawi and neighboring Sabah in Malaysia, since Muslims love to eat chili with their meals.
WHERE TO EAT IN TAWI-TAWI:
- Sandbar Beach Lepa and Restarurant, Pasiagan, Bongao
- Beachside Inn, Sowang Kagang, Bongao
- DanMar Resort, Pasiagan, Bongao
- Ibbo Beach Resort, Pasiagan, Bongao
- Rachel’s Place, Lamion, Bongao
- Aaron’s Pension House, Downtown, Bongao
- Mardo, Downtown, Bongao
- AMZ Snack House, Downtown, Bongao
- Fatima Shara, Downtown, Bongao
- King of Chicken, Downtown, Bongao
- Juana Hotel & Restaurant, Downtown, Bongao