A publisher asked me to describe the flavor of Zamboanga in one word; I kept quiet for a second before telling her that it’s difficult to encapsulate the diverse flavors in one word. Zamboanga City is the third largest city in the Philippines and the commercial center of Western Mindanao. It is also the gateway to the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi which are already part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). More than a handful of ethnicities consider this city as home and contribute to the local culinary scene. Surely, a food trip in Zamboanga is very exciting! Savores, the flavors of Zamboanga Peninsula!
Even as a local, I have not thoroughly tasted all the delicacies and unique recipes in our region because there are just so many recipes to try! Each ethnicity has something different to offer. Residents who worked abroad also managed to bring home some recipes that are slowly infusing into the local gastronomic scene. The recent Savores- an event organized by the Department of Tourism-Region 9 in partnership with the City Tourism Office and Hotel and Restaurant Association of Zamboanga City showcased the flavors of Zamboanga. Here are some must-try dishes of Zamboanga!
The curacha or spanner crab is a popular crustacean in this part of the country, looks like a crossbreed between a lobster and a crab. Curacha which can be found deep in the sea has a slightly salty flavor than the regular mud crab. Pincers of the curacha are flat and does not have any meat. One famous restaurant built by a prominent family has turned it into an icon- the Curacha in Alavar Sauce. Made with coconut milk, curry, and a blend spices that remained a family secret, the sauce is smothered over steamed curacha. An extra cup of rice makes the best compliment for the creamy sauce!
Alavar’s main branch in Don Alfaro, Tetuan, Zamboanga City offers a more fine dining set-up. For reservations, call (062) 991 2483. The restaurant advice to order ahead because cooking fresh seafood requires more time. A waiting time of 30minutes is on their disclaimer. Their Paseo del Mar branch has a set-up similar to fast foods. They offer pre-cooked meals and barkada meals that is perfect if you are in a group of three to five.
The Camon or sea mantis is another peculiar looking crustacean that is popular in the island provinces of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. This strange-looking creature that has a taste reminiscent of lobster can only be found in a few restaurants in Zamboanga City. Freshly sourced from Tawi-Tawi, Joe’s Seafood and Grill serves this with their special sauce that has a perfect blend of coconut milk, ginger, and other spices that does not overpower the delicate taste of the seafood. Enjoy the Camon and other seafood dishes at the newly opened Joe’s Seafood and Grill which serves reasonably priced meals! Other seafood items on their menu are grilled tuna belly, sizzling squid, and shrimp which are all perfectly cooked and tender to the bite! Telephone number: 062) 310 1993
Lechon Belly boodle fight
A celebration anywhere in the country will not be complete without the Lechon! Dubbed as the best pig ever, the lechon is a symbol of bounty for Filipino families. Christian families in Zamboanga are also fond of serving this favorite for birthdays, fiestas and other grand occasions. Bigben’s Kitchen recently made waves on social media because of their lechon belly and organic lechon recipes that pack with flavor from a heaping amount of spices. As they innovate to serve their customers better, they began serving the lechon belly and lechon boodle (whichever fits your budget). Lechon is placed in the middle of the dinner table and surrounded by different recipes of rice and seafood! This is a no-hassle way of throwing out a grand feast! Location: Ground floor, AGC Bldg. Gov. Ramos Ave. Sta Maria, Zamboanga City. Contact Number: 0916 794 5878
Sea urchins come in different shapes and sizes here in Zamboanga! The most popular is the Tehe-Tehe which is round and has relatively short spikes. Usually, the flesh is dipped in vinegar and eaten raw. A famous recipe for the Muslim Tribes of Tausugs and Sama Banguingui is the oko-oko or sea urchin stuffed with rice. The delicate taste of the sea urchin blends well with the rice. It is cracked like an egg to expose the meat of the sea urchin with the rice that has beautifully incorporated into the shape of the shell. This recipe is available through a special request during our Sta Cruz Island Tour.
Sama Banguingui and Tausug Delicacies
Markets and streets of Zamboanga have a lot of vendors that sell delicacies from Tausug and Sama Banguingui Tribes which are perfect for afternoon coffee breaks. Both tribes have similar treats with some differences on a few ingredients, but all of them are delectable. Rice flour is the most common ingredient for the delicacies, but the cooking methods vary. My personal favorite is the Baulu which looks like a muffin baked on a charcoal stove top oven. Another popular delicacy is the lokot-lokot which looks like fried vermicelli rolls but is rice flour cooked in a pan using a coconut shell with tiny holes. Kahawa Sug or Sulu Coffee is the best drink to pair with these delicacies.
Malaysian Egg Wrap
It is no secret that Zamboanga is the backdoor to Malaysia. Thousands of residents look for greener pastures in Sabah. Some of them bring back culinary delights and establish restaurants in Zamboanga. Quite some Malaysian restaurants can be found near the city hall and San Jose Road. My favorite pick is the Nasi Goreng Pattaya or fried rice wrapped in egg omelet served with sambal. The flavors took me back to Putra Jaya! Fried rice seasoned with curry, peppers, shrimp, and chicken are all wrapped in one big omelet. There are also other dishes that are worth trying like the Nasi Paprik! Visit Ole Ole Malaysia in front of Landbank WMSU, San Jose Road, Zamboanga City. 0927 770 3520
A spicy breakfast dish called the Satti is also one of the favorites here in the region. Made of tamu or hanging rice and beef or chicken barbecue sticks, a spicy red sauce made of turmeric is poured over it. Satti is hot and spicy but overflowing with umami goodness. It is popular during breakfast and as a cure for hangovers! Popular Satti houses in Zamboanga are Andy’s Satti in Tetuan, Jimmy’s Satti and Morning Sun Satti in Pilar Street.
Saging Frito con Haleya for Chavacanos or Juwalan for Tausugs, whatever you call it, fried bananas are perfect with sweetened coconut sauce. Sometimes the simplest recipes are the best tasting ones! Bananas are usually halved and coated before frying. Coconut milk cooked with sugar adds more sweetness to the dish! Try this delicious sweet and filling delicacy at Dennis Coffee Garden at their main branch in San Jose Road or their branch in KCC Mall. (062) 957 1131
For the adventurous tastebuds, the Tiula Itum is a must-try! A favorite of Tausugs during their festivities, this black version of nilagang baka with a spicy kick will make your palate go wild with meaty and tasty goodness. Burnt coconut milk gives the soup its black color with a tinge of green. All of my guests who have tried it would go crazy over the flavors of this dish. Tausugs love spice, and the tiula itum filled with a lot of it. My favorite Tiula Itum is from Barcode Rizal Street and Barcode Paseo del Mar.
I call it the boss of all desserts in Zamboanga. Palmeras Restaurant was the first to serve the knickberbocker before other local fast foods made their version. Chopped fresh fruits and gelatin cubes laced with a special cream sauce served with two scoops of ice cream. It looks like a version of Halo-halo sans the ice but leans more on the taste of fruit salad. Addictive! My travel partner from Mindoro can eat three servings in one seating! Nothing beats the original recipe from Hacienda de Palmeras Restaurant in Pasonanca, Zamboanga City or enjoy it while watching the sunset in Paseo del Mar!
This list is just the tip of the iceberg and Zamboanga has more to offer! Fresh seafood and vegetables combined with a colorful culture from different ethnicities make Zamboanga a melting pot of flavors. New restaurants and food stalls open every week make the culinary scene more exciting and competitive! Food trips in Zamboanga will take you to places while tasting different food from the islands and other countries. I think I’ll never be able to come up with a word that would encapsulate the flavor profile of Zamboanga and that makes it more thrilling!