The western Mindanao city’s distinctive tastes are as compelling as ever
It was a place that had been in the news continuously for over a year — as a besieged city, a battleground, a war zone, a site of devastation. By the time I returned to Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur — south of Iligan City, on the north end of Lake Lanao — it was mostly rubble. It was October, a year after the siege.
I was traveling with Clinton Palanca, a fellow writer, and Neal Oshima, a photographer, for research on a book project on Maranao culture. We knew that the town had been bombed and that refugees were being housed in camps along the highway, waiting for news of when they’d be able to return to their homes. Ground zero, the city center, was closed — among other reasons, it was still full of undetonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) — but the surrounding area had been spared.
The three of us stayed at a hotel — really just a facility to house visitors — in the suburb known as Ayala, where the manager turned out to be an old acquaintance, Aldean Alonto. After a long stint in Libya completing his studies on conflict resolution, he’d come home and taken over the Marawi Resort Hotel, a clutch of individual cottages dotted across a sprawling, hilly landscape that houses the Mindanao State University campus. “These were all used as barracks during the war,” Aldean told us. “The soldiers stayed here at night, then moved into town every morning to clear more houses.”
By early evening, the darkness around us had come alive with nighttime sounds — crickets, rustling leaves, hot drinks being poured into ceramic cups. Out on the cool deck of the main building, we passed the time chatting about the city and waving off curious flying bugs. We asked Aldean about the rehabilitation of Marawi. “We’ve lost track of how many times they’ve postponed the groundbreaking,” he told us with a sigh. “A lot of refugees have just given up and settled in Iligan or Cagayan de Oro.” Aldean himself dreamed of moving, perhaps to Palawan, but in the meantime, he was happy to help us with our mission to document Maranao culture. We wanted to see how people ate, how they fished, how they prepared food and, most importantly, whether the culinary traditions, which have evolved over the centuries and been passed down through generations, had survived the indignity of displacement and the cruelty of yet another war.
Maranao culture is often considered foreign and inscrutable, even to non-Muslims living just an hour’s drive away in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro. To me it was like coming home — albeit with a twist. My own family is of Maguindanao descent, from the other side of Mindanao. But I came of age in Manila and, despite my trips back home and my coming to terms with my faith, I understood Maranao cuisine almost as a stranger would. Everything was familiar but different. The Maranao, Meranao, Maranaw and Mranao all refer to the same people: the people of the lake, the inhabitants of its sloping and storied shores. Known as Lake Lanao or Ranao, it’s large enough to supply electricity to several cities in northern Mindanao (an ongoing bone of contention, since the Maranao themselves feel they have not benefited from it), but small enough for someone to drive around its perimeter in a day.
With the expansive Lanao region on the island of Mindanao as their ancestral home, Maranao cuisine emphasizes the bounty of the lake and sea — fish, crayfish, shrimp, shoreside vegetables — as well as the fertile land in between. And, even more than Bicolano cuisine, Maranao food is devilishly fiery and spicy; almost nothing is served without an added dollop of fresh chili hidden somewhere in the dish.
Coconut is another constant theme of the gastronomic repertoire, as is the use of turmeric and the white scallion known as sakurab. “The taste for hotness is also found among the [Maranaos], who pound sili together with garlic, ginger and wild onions into palapa, a relish used to give spark and life to almost any fish or vegetable dish,” wrote the late food writer Doreen Fernandez in Tikim, a collection of food essays.
In its most modest form, palapa is made from sakurab, chili, ginger and salt; it may or may not have grated coconut mixed in, and the coconut itself may or may not be toasted. The first one I encountered years ago was the opposite of demure — it was pounded together with bakas, or smoked tuna, before being sautéed. The resulting mix was hot, fresh and glistening.
- Palapa 101. If a single flavor profile could summarize Maranao food, it would be that of palapa. Used to enhance taste, it’s a fundamental component of Maranao cooking. The main ingredient of palapa is sakurab, and variants include one that’s sautéed in oil. Others incorporate ingredients such as roasted coconut and shredded smoked tuna to achieve additional layers of flavor. Here’s how to make your own jar at home.
- What you need: 1kg sakurab, cleaned by removing tops and exposing white bulbs; 100g siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili); 150g ginger, peeled; 15g rock salt
- How to make palapa: Using a large mortar and pestle, pound sakurab, sili, ginger and onion into a paste. Stir or pound in other ingredients as desired.
Ever since that first bite, palapa has been an indulgence I’ve never been able to get enough of. It’s a spice mix and a base flavoring for a sauté, chutney, sauce and relish all in one. It comes in myriad forms and preparations, the range of which echoes the Maranao themselves: varied and diverse, but recognizably similar.
While it’s possible to buy palapa these days, it’s more common to make your own. But, like adobo for the rest of the Philippines, there are various kinds, for different purposes, and, of course, everyone has their own secret recipe. And as with adobo, it would be unfair to say that these flavors represent the whole — Maranao food is as complex and refined as it is in-your-face and robust. Among the first meals we indulged in was a beautiful rendang, one of the most popular dishes in the region — though, oddly enough, it’s a relatively recent addition to the cuisine, having only been imported from Indonesia a few generations ago. It featured chunks of tender beef, a rich curry-like sauce and a sprinkling of palapa.
Early the next morning, we ventured out of the university campus, which had been spared by the recent siege. We were hoping to catch the light and, of course, eat something. We found a small carinderia just in time to see the cook whip up biyaring — a basic palapa with fresh, preferably live, bluish crayfish pounded in a mortar — which I enjoyed with turmeric rice (called kyuning). There were so many layers to that simple meal: the primal pleasure of the raw, as with kinilaw or sashimi; the edge of a freshly ground aromatic sambal; piquancy cushioned by mildly spiced rice.
“This authentic [Maranao] food is not for the faint-hearted because it is raw, slimy and spicy,” wrote Marawi-born economist Assad Baunto in his book Manga Tutul a Palapa: Recipes and Memories from Ranao. “It is usually consumed as a condiment, or as a viand paired with steaming hot kyuning. A taste of biyaring transports you to centuries-old [Maranao] culture: bold, zesty and spicy. It is all of Ranao’s bounty in a small teaspoon. I can devour a bowl of it, and still long for more.”
The morning’s meal was regular, everyday fare, but it was also much more than that: it was a good sign in a city that seizes on pockets of hope, wherever they may find it. Marawi’s main market, once the city’s proud center of life and commerce, had been reduced to a crestfallen ruin, and its houses had been looted. Valuable antiques left behind by families as they fled the war were rumored to be appearing on the black market. Many of its former residents, despite being conscious of ancient Maranao maratabat — a traditional concept of prestige and dignity — had resigned themselves to their circumstances and lived in the many refugee camps in the area. Others had found a home or were in the process of finding settlement elsewhere.
But life had found a way to go on here. Roadside stalls along the highway were once again lively with commerce and overflowed with produce from lake and forests — the heartland and the source of Marawi’s food — which remained abundant and giving. At dusk, the smell of sautéeing palapa rose from the tents of NGO and international aid agency workers that lined the road from the city to the coastline. And then it hit me: For as long as the people of the lake remain steadfast in securing their identity and heritage, the tastes and flavors of palapa and biyaring, among other delights, will continue to be savored.
The first time I went to Marawi was over a decade ago. The sun was going down when I left Iligan and the road snaked up into the pine-scented darkness, away from the coastline of northern Mindanao and southward into its interior. When I arrived, I found a city concealed in blackness, and so the next morning was a revelation: the sunlight that bathed my first sight of Marawi revealed a stately, sprawling pine forest and a view of the vast lake.
In the cool post-dawn air I had a breakfast of dark coffee, fruit and chicken cooked in the distinctive Maranao piyaparan style: the bird simmered in coconut milk and tossed in freshly grated coconut meat, turned yellow from turmeric, and speckled with green leek and red chili.
After breakfast I went for a stroll; the women gave shy smiles outlined by tight veils. Marawi then felt very much like Baguio: several storied structures that bore witness to the city’s history, pedestrians with hands tucked into jacket pockets, wares both antique and contemporary. It had the hustle and bustle of a city nestled in rolling hills — a picturesque, vibrant trading town. That first morning’s early sun was a filter that would forever color my perception of the city. From then on, Marawi, despite the blasted, blackened ruins shown in the newspapers or on TV, was never too distant nor too perilous. It was always going to be golden, as it had been that morning.
Cebu Pacific flies to Iligan (Laguindingan Airport) from Manila, Cebu, Dumaguete, Tagbilaran, Davao and Zamboanga. cebupacificair.com
This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of Smile magazine.