Thursday, April 27, 2017

Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour: Flavors of Calbayog

There's no better way to appreciate the richness of Philippine regional cuisine than to head out to the source and immerse yourself in the local culture and experience it first-hand. With over 7,107 islands, our culinary heritage is as diverse as the vastness of the archipelago, infused by the distinct local cultures of each region, and spiced up by historical influences. It's this unique diversity that makes Philippine cuisine so rich, shaped by the unique geographical features and resources of each region, and lovingly preserved by tradition and a deep sense of local pride.  

The Department of Tourism's Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour is an offshoot of the recent Madrid Fusion, an annual culinary event celebrating the shared history and culinary heritage of Spain and the Philippines (for more on Madrid Fusion, see my previous posts, Sights and Flavors at Madrid Fusion Manila 2016 and Made in Spain: Pork Love at Madrid Fusion Manila 2016). The renewed interest in traditional gastronomy, specifically regional cuisine, presents unique opportunities to rediscover comforting flavors and reconnect with our roots. And there's nothing like experiencing local cuisine, providing insights in the region's culture and history. Like they say, know what the locals eat, and you'll gain a better perspective on the local vibe. Read on and rediscover the flavors of Eastern Visayas on a virtual tour of the twin cities of Calbayog and Catbalogan with a final stop at Tacloban on my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour...

A red eye flight to Calbayog kicks off my culinary adventures to Eastern Samar, and catching the sunrise high above the clouds appeared as a good sign of even more good things to come. A bit past 6am, touchdown. And my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour began at the quaint city of Calbayog...

...just in time for breakfast. Representatives from the Department of Tourism and Local Government greeted my arrival with the traditional warm welcome, and transported me to the Calbayog City Tourism Office at the heart of Calbayog's old Spanish quarter. Inside the historic structure, a breakfast feast was laid out...

For centuries, the rich and fertile lands of Samar has formed the foundation for a stable agrarian economy, and this is evident in the local cuisine reflecting the bountiful harvest of the region. Samar is also surrounded by an abundance of marine resources, with the Philippine Sea to its east and north, the San Bernardino Straight separating it from Southeastern Luzon, the Camotes and Visayas Seas to the west, and the Bohol Sea and Surigao Straight to the south. To this day, Samar remains one of the country's leading fish exporting regions. A refreshing bowl of Ginataang Pako at Laing with Tinapa Flakes reflects the bounties of both land and sea, with a hearty salad of local fiddlehead fern draped in creamy coconut milk blended with taro leaves topped with dried smoked fish flakes and onions. The creamy notes of the coconut are complemented by the mildly sweet hints of the fiddlehead fern and taro leaves, capped by the subtle salty and smoky flavors of the fish for complex yet balanced flavors. There is an earthy and rustic simplicity to the dish, yet each bite is followed by a burst of vibrant flavors reflecting the richness of Samar's bountiful land and seas. Pure, clean, and fresh flavors, this is Samar on a plate, lovingly recreated by Mrs. Rosaria Gonzaga, one of Calbayog's noted culinary figures.

A playfully inventive and modern twist comes into play with the Tinapa Dynamite, a fiery local chili stuffed with the local smoked fish and wrapped in a crisp spring roll. The dish may appear modern, but you can trace the origins of the dish from Chinese influences common in the country. It's the melting pot of various cultures that have enriched the local cuisine, becoming their very own over time. The flavors are bold and upfront, the soothing heat of the chili tempered by the dried fish and sweet sour sauce. 

Eastern Visayas creates their own unique spin on the iconic pork sisig of Northern Luzon, replacing pork with fresh fish with the Seafood Sisig. The delicate notes of the fish are punctuated by vibrant local citrus hints and comforting heat from the chili and red onions followed by the creamy flavor of coconut milk. And unlike the original pork sisig, you can enjoy generous servings of Seafood Sisig without the guilt. Seafood has always played a vital role in the history and economy of Samar, and the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour has revealed even more delectable seafood dishes... the Binukohang Tinapa at Hipon, a fresh medley of shrimps, crabs and dried fish with shredded coconut meat. The briny sweetness of the plump shrimps and succulent crabs pair well with the natural sweetness of the coconut, capped by the distinct salty notes of the dried fish. The coconut is a vital crop in the agrarian economy of Samar, and you'll find coconuts infused in many local dishes. Like any local cuisine, the unique geography and its resources often dictate the evolution of its local dishes. The day's freshest catch on a plate, Samar's seafood is always a must-try when you visit Eastern Visayas. 

Then, there are the staples of Calbayog's seafood heritage like Labtinao, a dried fish delicately marinated in local vinegar and seasoned with spice. Unlike the usual dried fish, Samar's Labtinao is juicy and moist with a light and crisp outer layer, releasing briny flavors. A common breakfast staple, it's been said that each household in Samar takes pride in their own homemade dried fish, and finding the best Labtinao in Samar would be an open-ended discussion among local residents. A local vinegar dip, steamed white rice, and fresh tomatoes, Samar's Labtinao sets you up for a comforting meal for breakfast, any time of day.

The signature Tinapa of Samar, with its vivid golden hues, is another staple that should not be missed. Made from fresh hasa-hasa and alumahan, the local mackerel commonly found in Samar, smoking fish is a centuries-old tradition to preserve the freshness of the seafood. And in Samar, this traditional craft has been elevated into an art form. Samar's tinapa is not overwhelmingly salty, in fact, one can taste a whisper of sweetness best enjoyed with rice, tomatoes, and a vinegar dip. Smoked and dried for hours, the delicate notes of the fish are preserved with a layer of smoky flavors that's hard to resist. So go ahead, go for that extra bowl of rice...

If you're craving for some pork love, Samar's got that covered too. The Pork Humba is traditionally regarded as the Visayan version of Adobo, with tender pork belly simmered with black beans or tausi. The origins of the dish can be traced back to early Chinese influences, specifically the Hong-Ba or braised pork belly dish. The Visayan humba is noticeably sweeter than the usual vinegar and soy-based adobo of the north, slow-cooked until the pork belly just melts in your mouth. The sweetness of the dish is balanced by the salty notes of the black beans for balanced flavors. But unlike the normal pork adobo, you don't just pair this with steamed white rice... pair it with sticky red rice or Sinakugan poured with hot chocolate. And to my surprise, it does work. The savory richness of the pork humba is perfectly enhanced by the red rice draped in chocolate. The confluence of indigenous cuisine with Spanish influences become immediately evident, defining Samar's unique culinary identity. And this is where the flavors of Samar come through with a consistent distinction. The traditional dishes of Samar combine the sweet with the savory in a comforting combination that's unique to the region. And as I experienced even more local dishes the following day in both Calbayog and Catbalogan, the contrasting flavors of sweetness with savory, sour, salty, and spicy notes remain a recurring theme. The play on contrasting flavors add variety in each and every bite, yet there is a delicate balance for a seamless blend. Maybe this explains the happy disposition of the people of Samar, remaining steadfast and optimistic despite the calamities of recent years. It's true what they say, immersing yourself in local cuisine often reveals insightful perspectives on the region's unique culture.

Samar's local cottage cheese, the Queseo, made with carabao's milk and served with fresh tomatoes and cucumber was also served. The soft and silky texture delivers creamy notes  punctuated by mildly salty and sour hints from the vinegar used in the curing process. Sliced in thin, round shapes, the local kesong puti is great on its own with the tomatoes. A common breakfast staple, Samar's queseo is often paired with local bread and coffee, including their own malunggay bread made with moringa leaves.

Each region in the Philippines has their own noodle dish, the Pancit, and Samar boasts of their Binukohang Pancit with shredded coconut meat and noodles, vegetables, seafood and pork. The blend of noodles and coconut meat is unique, combining both sweet and savory notes in one dish. It's yet another example of Samar's abundant harvests from both the land and sea, and the consistent theme of contrasting flavors.

In between tasty bites, new ways of enjoying tinapa are constantly being created, like Taro Chips with Tinapa Dip. And I'm told more exciting new dishes are being developed by the young talented chefs of Samar. Indeed, these are exciting times...

A full plate followed by another, nothing like a sumptuous breakfast of traditional local dishes to kick off a culinary tour of Eastern Visayas. During the leisurely breakfast, the staff of the Calbayog City Tourism Office shared many of their exciting activities, including their famed zip line at the top of Malajog Ridge Nature Park leading down to a pristine island, their many waterfalls and caves, and hot springs. Calbayog is all geared up for summer, and their local cuisine is part of the experience, another layer to the many surprises of Eastern Visayas.

But save room for dessert. Like many regions in the country, rice is often used as the base in creating sweet delicacies, including the Biko Pandan. The sticky rice dessert has a fragrant aroma from the pandan with an indulgent sweetness, perfect with a cup of local coffee.

The Sinarungsung is another local rice-based delicacy rolled in cone-shaped banana leaf, just one of many in Samar. Cooked in coconut milk, the sinarungsung is soft and sweet, capping a memorable breakfast on my first day at Calbayog.

And Mrs. Rosario Gonzaga has one more tasty surprise, Calbayog's very own Hopia Langka, their own version of the popular Chinese pastry. Instead of the traditional bean filling, the local version features sweet jackfruit for a whole new spin. Samar's culinary scene continues to evolve, and you can find new and innovative dishes showcasing the region's freshest ingredients. But at the core of Samar's heritage is their traditional cuisine preserved by the region's culinary guardians. It's reassuring to find innovation alongside tradition, and Samar allows you to explore and experience the best of both worlds.

By 9am, it was time to explore the picturesque city of Calbayog before the drive to Catbalogan for yet another unique taste of the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour...

For more information on Eastern Visayas, visit the Department of Tourism's cool FB Page for Eastern Visayas at

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  1. Me ha gustado mucho el documento que has enviado descubriendo este paĆ­s que nos has mostrado, sus costumbres, cultura realmente maravilloso

  2. Where can a tourist like me eat all these food?

    1. Hi, you can visit the FB Page of the Calbayog City Tourism Office for more info here at Thanks!


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