Chavacano Cuisine | Zamboanga’s Gastronomic Souvenir
Chavacano cuisine is more than just that eternally delicious seafood on a platter. It is also about their heirloom recipes & centuries worth of kitchen stories. It is about their people & place. Above all, it is about the episodes of cultural influences that continue to shape Zamboanga’s culinary history.
I cannot anymore count the number of times I have visited Zamboanga City since I first came in the early ‘90s. I always love coming back to this place because I feel so at home. The people are gentle, the sights are pretty & the culture is colorful.
But one thing that is always unforgettable about Zamboanga is its food scene. With its rich culinary tradition, the choices are aplenty as its sources & the flavors are diverse as its cultures. Simply, no one goes hungry here!
Chavacano Cuisine: When Lemongrass meets Saffron
Zamboanga’s food flare is a classic example of East meets West gastronomy. It demonstrates the fusion of its local ingredients & traditional preparations with various cultural influences like the Castillan, Malay & Chinese.
While seafood is a staple here, the variety of its dishes extends to the bounties of its farmlands & rivers. And the abundance of its ingredients is what makes its cookery unimaginably delicious & wide.
Take the much-loved paella that goes with local kasubha or safflower instead of the expensive priced saffron. Or the rich meat stews with bambawing or local wild basil.
With its lavish resources & the imaginations of its village cooks & toque-stirring chefs, Zamboanga continues to feed our vanities the delicious way.
Southeast Asian Influence
Zamboanga & its nearby islands used to share waters & land with their closest Southeast Asian neighbors like Indonesia & Malaysia. Via the ancient trading route, commerce & Islam flourished on this side of the Philippines. Even to this day, many goods still enter through what we call the “backdoor” & poke panic among tourists in Canelar Barter.
With this long-time backdoor affair, the food of the Tausug, Badjao & Sama people continue to carry the features of Indonesian & Malaysian food—bold flavors, coconut-heavy & spice happy!
Satti, a skewered beef dish in a thick puddle of sweet-spicy-nutty sauce is a favorite breakfast among Chavacanos. Johnny’s is the household name. But if you want to taste the difference step into Jimmy’s, right next door.
But Muslim food is never complete without mentioning beef rendang, tiula itum, chicken pianggang & beef kulma. While these dishes are common around the lower regions of Southeast Asia, its adaptations in Zamboanga & the nearby islands of Sulu, Basilan & Tawi-Tawi are as equally rich, creamy & flavorful.
Much of Philippine cuisine is influenced by Castillan cookery. And Zamboanga being a Spanish stronghold demonstrates this influence in their much-adored casserole dishes.
Paella, Bacalao, Callos & Cocido are just among the stars of Chavacano cuisine. They take the labor-intensive Castillan preparation & names but adapt it with local available ingredients without compromising the integrity of its taste & sophistication.
And when in Zamboanga, there are a few distinct restaurants that carry these dishes well. Alavar Seafood Restaurant, Hacienda Palmera & Casa Evelyn are among them.
But if you are looking for exquisite Spanish heirloom recipes, you have to be invited into the private kitchens of the old families. Gerry Atilano is among those great local hosts who whip up something for exclusive guests.
Food is the language of travel. And if there were any gastronomic souvenirs you’ll have from Zamboanga, it would be their seafood!
Curacha or spanner crab is no doubt its main showpiece. It is usually dazed with thick sauce made of coconut milk & spices. It goes well with Bagon de Gata or shrimp paste in coco milk.
But Zamboanga isn’t all about curacha. It is a wonderland for other seafood delights like lobsters, expensive fish varieties & shrimps that are mostly sailed from the islands of Tawi-Tawi. Interestingly, another must-try here is the Sama uko-uko or sea urchin stuffed with flavored rice.
A few good names to remember are Alavar, La Vista del Mar & Haisan. These restaurants are hallmarks of excellent seafood & service.
Chavacano cuisine is never without the happy & sweet snacks of the Muslim people collectively called “bangbang sug”.
Everything is typically served on a large tray. Among them are baulo mamun, panyalam, kalling, lokot-lokot, panganun, pitis patani & pasung. All of these go well with local coffee called kahawa.
One place is so popular for the bangbang flare—Dennis Coffee Garden. They’ve been around since 1962 & from their small beginnings in Jolo, they are now all around in Zamboanga City.
While anytime is a good time to go on a food trip in Zamboanga City, catching the annual culinary fair dubbed as Savores is a perfect event to experience the diversity of Chavacano cuisine.
It is usually timed in April as the nation celebrates the flavors of the Philippines in a month-long fiesta of culinary heritage.
Savores brings in one venue the masters of Chavacano cuisine from village cooks to homegrown chefs. It also introduces to the public the contemporary restaurants & their progressive takes of their rich gastronomy.
This year, the ones that gave a real kick in the palate was the paku salad in pinakurat dressing by Chef Leo Alfaro of Mel’s The Grill King. Another Alfaro, Jomari, the young & new face of Alavar wowed me with their imbao en la horno & pescao ala pobre.
The pastel de chicken pianggang of Chinito’s was also a stellar. Then there was Bay Tal Mal with their unforgettable piyassak or beef liver in coconut milk & burned coco meat.
Zamboanga City is one of the places in the Philippines with undeniably strong food culture. And Chavacano cuisine is one that is strikingly bold & delicious, deep & diverse. It is one destination that you can say “ang sarap balik-balikan”.
Special thanks to the Department of Tourism – Region 9
Explore Zamboanga City & its gustatory delights with ITravel Tourist Lane