by Datu Shariff Pendatun
Growing up in Manila, I didn’t have food from Maguindanao everyday. From time to time, we received parcels of oddities from Cotabato. We were sent soy milk in quatro canto bottles, eel of varied girth, locust, giant river prawn, marang, durian, and many others.
For a child accustomed to urban offerings in the nineties, soy milk wasn’t milk. Eel wasn’t fish either for it was snake in the guise of fish. Locust were insects, thus food for animals. And since the prawn’s head was much larger then its body, it was malformed. As for fruit, marang gave me rashes after carrying them in my arms; while durian simply stank. Food from Mindanao, wasn’t normal. They were acquired tastes, grotesque novelties.
As I grew older, I developed a curiosity not only for food of the Maguindanaon, but for our history and culture too. It’s a curiosity shared by those like me who were strangers to Mindanao. At some point, I found myself going around Mindanao. I took note of sensations and stories that resonated: coconut’s cream when sprinkled with fragrant kabuling lime was a stupendous dressing for grilled snakehead; the alchemy of fried rotten climbing perch dipped in palm sap vinegar resulted in potent umami hits; before coming home, my grandfather would send word for boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves to be grilled; how my father ate mung beans and sun-dried snakehead with relish.
The past years, other chefs and writers have been asking me to share what I know about the food of Muslim Mindanao and Sulu. Since the things I’ve talked about are drawn from experience, from conversations, travels, and meals shared; I feel that I’ve shared a part of me as well. I didn’t realize it then, but talking about Moro food and the cultural inflections that make it what it is has nudged me towards a path of knowing myself. Through food, I’ve gotten to know more about my roots and the rituals that nourish them.
A personal demystification of Maguindanaon food has allowed for a telling of stories of family, of histories.
Apparently, there’s a popular perception among Filipinos that Muslim Mindanao tables teem with curry and spice. The notion isn’t ill perceived since Mindanao is proximal to the Moluccas, otherwise known as the Spice Islands. However, the spices typically used in Maguindanaon dishes are fresh and light, i.e. in contrast to the warmth lent by dry spices typically associated with curries and masalas.
The Maguindanaon’s spice range is rather limited, and use of it relatively taciturn. Ginger, turmeric, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, and onion are about it. Cassia leaf, while familiar to some of my kinfolk, is more of an Iranun ingredient as it thrives in a climate afforded by the altitude of their domain. The use of kabuling leaf shoots to flavor broth is rare and known to few. Dried spices like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon that gave the Spice Islands such appellation can and has grown in Mindanao’s fertile soil. Why then aren’t they a part of our culinary tradition?
In the 17th century, English explorer William Dampier provided an account of his experience in Maguindanao. An observation of his in 1686 could explain the absence of spices in our food:
“They have plenty of clove-bark, of which I saw a shipload; and as for cloves, Raja Laut, whom I shall have occasion to mention, told me that if the English would settle there they could order matters so in a little time as to send a shipload of cloves from thence every year…
I have not seen the nutmeg-trees anywhere; but the nutmegs this island produces are fair and large, yet they have no great store of them, being unwilling to propagate them or the cloves, for fear that should invite the Dutch to visit them and bring them into subjection as they have done the rest of the neighbouring islands where they grow.”
The clove bark he mentioned way probably a kind of cinnamon. Cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg are used in the cuisines of present day Indonesia and Malaysia—Mindanao’s neighbor’s to the south. While these spices certainly add flavor and character to their meals today, they provided motivation for Dutch impositions centuries ago. Six years earlier, Sultan Amsterdam of Ternate wrote a letter to Sultan Barhaman of Maguindanao warning him of the Dutch and what they have done in the Moluccas:
“After this your highness’ eldest brother the Paduca Siri Sultan of Ternate informs his youngest brother the Paduca Siri Sultan of Maguindanao…that the people if Maguindanao do not let themselves be misled by the Hollanders, as to what they have sought to do in the Moluccas: because they have become enemies of the faith of the Prophet and its missionaries of God to us Muslims.”
The letter was found Sultan Amsterdam’s belongings so it never reached the Maguindanao sultan, but we can imagine that Sultan Amsterdam’s sentiments somehow reached the shores of Mindanao at some point. These accounts have led me to consider that such fears and sentiments towards the Dutch had something to do with the limited choices of spice in our pantry. Trade in spices must’ve been abandoned sometime between then and now and those spices were eventually forgotten.
How different would’ve Maguindanaon food been without the threat of 17th century colonizers? We will never divine such things, but there is pleasure in imagining the possibilities—taking in the sweet smell of cinnamon laced rice cakes wrapped in banana leaf as they’re are unfurled; patiently enjoying the gurgle of beef, coconut, and spices fresh and dry as it simmers in a large vat like Minangkabau rendang, blistering one’s fingers when taking bites from polpettes of mashed saba banana, palm starch, and grated nutmeg…
Sa Inged a Madu
I could’ve gotten my fondness for tracing roots and unveiling connections from grandfather who kept a copy of the family tree on his desk. My search for cooking techniques and ingredients has also lead me to discover stories of my ancestry. It turns out that Sultan Barhaman of Maguindanao was a direct ancestor of my grandfather, and the Raja Laut that Dampier spoke of was the Sultan’s brother. It really doesn’t carry that much weight nowadays since Sultan Barhaman’s progeny must already be in the thousands, but finding the connection makes the endeavor of food research more personal, more special.
Affinity between food and family isn’t peculiar to the Moro world of my father. A relative from Mom’s side was Doreen G. Fernandez. She was my grandmother’s aunt and godsister, although I never had the pleasure of meeting her while she was alive. As a noted literary scholar who pioneered food writing in the Philippines, the works she left on food are among the country’s most relevant and compelling.
A couple years ago, when I was working on a piece on Maguindanaon cuisine, I imagined its title to be as elegant as Fernandez’s short essay on Negrense food, Sa Banwa sang Dulce. The best I could come up with at the time was Sa Inged a Madu, i.e. In the Town of Stench in Basa na Maguindanaon. Not only was it inelegant, it conveyed that Maguindanaon food in general was malodorous. I ended up with a title that wasn’t repellant.
Early on, a dichotomy developed in my mind between the two worlds I straddled. Mindanao was brash, wild, and hot; whereas Negros was genteel, laved, and airconditioned. I noticed that my father’s relatives had a thing for spitting, while anything that had to do with saliva was abhorrent to the other side. The contrast was further defined by food. Maguindanaons are fond of strong smelling food—a number of them putrid. Visiting relatives in Mindanao and getting to know them by sharing meals taught me to appreciate their food and habits. I now count rotten fish and durian among my favorites, and I’ve learned to become fond of chewing betel quid, thus spitting.
Smelly food and gilded lineage make up a fraction of my Mindanao background, and that side is but part of larger tapestry of narratives. Every time I partake of the “native” food of my ilk, whether Maguindanaon or otherwise, I intuit a propinquity not only to them, but to the past. There is something warm and reassuring about partaking in something passed down, and I am at ease with the idea that I’ve come to know myself better through my search for food.