ALL roads lead to Iloilo this weekend for the annual Dinagyang Festival, which never fails to draw big crowds. But the Dinagyang Festival is not the only big event that makes people visit Iloilo these days. There is also the Tabu-an: Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cuisine Cooking Competition, which has been taking place in Iloilo in the month of November for the past two years.
I’ve been privileged to have become a part of the first two Tabu-an celebrations, having been first invited to be a judge in the Tabu-an: 1st Annual Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cuisine Cooking Competition and Food Fair held at Esca’s Garden & Restaurant in Iloilo City in 2011 and then again in the Tabu-an sa Kahilwayan: 2nd Annual Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cuisine Cooking Competition and Trade Fair held at the Courtyard of the Santa Barbara Catholic Church in Santa Barbara, Iloilo, last November 2012.
Last year’s competition was hosted by the municipality of Santa Barbara in conjunction with its Kahilwayan Festival to mark the Cry of Santa Barbara, which led to the establishment of a Revolutionary Government of the Visayas and made Santa Barbara the base of the Revolutionary Forces back in 1898. The two celebrations – the Kahilwayan Festival and the Tabu-an: Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cuisine Cooking Competition – were combined into a single but more exciting event highlighted by the cooking competition.
My husband Raff and I joined a panel of judges made up of Manila-based journalists: Philippine Daily Inquirer food columnist Micky Fenix and writer Agnes Prieto, Philippine Star assistant lifestyle editor Lai Reyes, top food and travel blogger Enrico Dee, and Raff and me representing FLAVORS Magazine.
ALL EYES ON THE COOKING COMPETITION
As it was in the first year that it was organized by Ilonggo chef Rafael ‘Tibong’ Jardeleza II, last year’s cooking competition once again sought to highlight not-so-known Ilonggo heritage dishes and bring them to the fore to once again be appreciated and patronized by both Ilonggos and non-Ilonggos alike. It drew six participating teams, each representing either a school or a civic organization in the Western Visayas region, and each tasked to prepare three dishes (an appetizer, a main dish and a dessert). While Ilonggo heritage dishes remained to be the general theme for the appetizer and main dish, the organizing committee specified root crops as the main ingredient for the dessert this year.
After a whole day of cooking in the church grounds, the cooking competition culminated with a formal awarding ceremony cum grand dinner at the Courtyard. What makes the Tabu-an cooking competition distinct from other competitions is that the competing teams do not only cook for presentation and for the judges to taste but for a grand dinner with approximately 200 guests.
Surprise winner for last year’s competition was the Baranggay Nutrition Scholars of Santa Barbara, who cooked simple but very flavorful Ilonggo meals of Nilagpang nga Pantat (a soupy dish of grilled hito or catfish with vegetables), Escabeche nga Isda and Buching Camote.
Second prize went to Kryz Culinary Arts & Restaurant Services Institute (K-CARSI), whose recipe entries were Adobado nga Biga-Biga (pig innards), Pinaisan nga Darag sa Kuron (native chicken in clay pot) and Steamed Kamote with Bukayo.
Grabbing the third prize was Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, who prepared Fresh Lumpiang Ilonggo, Lengua con Setas con Olivas and No-bake Potato Cheesecake with Green Tea-infused Cream Sauce with Cashew Praline.
To make the event even more exciting, guests during the grand dinner were asked to vote for the Diners’ Choice special awardees based on the dishes that they got to taste, and the Diners’ Choice awards went to Colegio del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus (first place), West Visayas State University (second place) and K-CARSI (third place).
The other competing teams were Aklan State University and the Rural Improvement Club of Santa Barbara.
We members of the Board of Judges based our scores on the participating teams’ Cooking Skills and Preparation (25%), Authenticity of Dish and Flavor (60%) and Food Presentation (15%) for a total of 100%.
Another major component of last year’s Tabu-an sa Kahilwayan event was the Tabu-an sa Kahilwayan Food Festival, a street food affair which had food vendors selling different kinds of Ilonggo food lining the streets for two consecutive evenings. Many of the food stalls were selling chicken and pork inasal and other grilled dishes and Ilonggo comfort foods. It’s the first time a food street was featured in the event.
Then there was the early morning formal unveiling of the marker for the Cry of Santa Barbara by the entrance of the Santa Barbara Church, following a flag raising ceremony led by Santa Barbara Mayor Dennis Superficial.
Closing the formal activities for last year’s event was the Tabu-an lunch held at the Santa Barbara Commercial Market on the third day of the festivities.
Chef Tibong actually started the Tabu-an lunch tradition during the 1st Western Visayas Ilonggo Heritage Cuisine Cooking Competition back in 2011 when he asked that a portion of the Central Market in Iloilo City be cleared and he set up a casual Tabu-an lunch for that year’s Manila-based judges. He laid out a long table with banana leaves, cooked delicious seafoods and classic Ilonggo dishes based on fresh ingredients available at the wet market, and laid them all in the center of the table for everyone to enjoy, boodle fight style, by eating with their hands.
That single Tabu-an lunch started a tradition of Tabu-an lunches private individuals’ visiting guests and special occasions such as birthdays. Reservations are made with Chef Tibong, who always prepared dishes based on the available fresh ingredients in the market.
This past Tabu-an lunch was already an expanded version of the original Tabu-an lunch. The food was still laid out, boodle fight style, on a banana lined long table, but this time it was a buffet spread, where guests got their food. The dining table was still long and lined with banana leaves, and the guests still ate with their hands, but the dining table was now separate from the buffet table. Truth is that there was quite a number of dining tables, occupied by Tabu-an sa Kahilwayan organizers, local government and tourism officials, and guests.
(*Watch for Food-tripping in Iloilo (Part2): Where We Stayed, What We Ate. Coming up next.)