A recent morning spent in a Tagbanua grandma’s kitchen triggers many tasty memories of time spent with the indigenous people of Palawan
A cooking spoon and a wok is all Maurita Bering needs to roast her coffee. Her backyard kitchen may be simple, but it’s home to a unique native brew that has sustained her family for generations.
“I don’t know exactly how old this recipe is, but I remember watching my grandmother doing it when I was very young,” comments the 62-year-old lady. Maurita, or Nay Maurit, is Tagbanua, an ethnic group found throughout Palawan. Here at her home on the island of Uson, just off the coast of Coron Town, I’m eagerly awaiting the chance to sample her traditional kapeng bilog (round coffee). She lights a bonfire on the ground, then lays the ingredients out beside her. “That’s two scoops of green coffee beans, 250g of sugar and somebody to chat with,” she points out. The roasting begins as soon as the wok is sufficiently heated. Nay Maurit pours out the coffee beans and we start chatting.
“We like this coffee because it’s very strong,” my host says while deftly stirring the dried-out seeds. “You can tell that it works because you get sweaty after drinking it.” The distinctly woody smell of roasting coffee soon fills the air.
Sitting in this rustic setting with this delightfully chatty grandma, I’m reminded of the numerous meals I’ve shared over the years with the Tagbanua. I’ve been fortunate during my journeys to the Calamianes to have had lots of memorable encounters with these people.
The main ingredient of this salad is sea grapes (Caulerpa lentillifera) or lato, a delicacy found in coastal areas throughout the Philippines. The Tagbanua have learned to farm this type of seaweed, making it one of their main sources of income.
1 lb fresh lato
1 large tomato, chopped
1 large red onion, chopped
1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon brown sugar
1. Combine vinegar, salt, sugar, onions and tomato.
2. Pour over lato and serve immediately. Lato tends to get mushy if soaked for too long.
My first glimpse of the Tagbanua was from afar, way back in 2002 when I first visited Coron. From the deck of a tourist boat, I watched as a group of them harvested lato from an underwater farm. They didn’t look too different from other people, but were very shy and kept to themselves. As the day wore on I saw more of these natives — they paddled by on little wooden boats, some holding fishing nets, others carrying woven baskets. I also managed to see them doing what they were most famous for — gathering birds’ nests or nido from the side of towering granite cliffs.
Few people know it, but these traditional rock climbers belong to one of the oldest ethnic groups in the Philippines. The Spaniards who first came to the country in 1521 noted their use of brass tools and jewelry.
The last century saw the Tagbanua adapting to the changing times, with many converting to Christianity and switching to more modern lifestyles. As Coron grew into a popular tourist destination, they also had to band together to keep urban development from encroaching into their lands. In 1998, the Tagbanuas secured a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title from the government, which gave them ownership over the island of Coron, along with neighboring islets and fishing grounds.
The Tagbanua may have managed to keep their territory safe from outside development, but they are slowly — if awkwardly — getting used to the presence of foreigners. With much amusement, Nay Maurit recounts the time she went to the market to sell her lato and found herself face-to-face with a Korean tourist.
“I tried to talk to him but I ran out of English!” she recounts in Tagalog. “I did my best to teach him how to prepare the lato. I don’t think he understood me but he bought some of it anyway.” Nay Maurit stayed there all afternoon wondering if the foreigner would return. “He never came back,” she continues, “I hope he didn’t try to cook it. I worry that he will think Tagbanua food tastes terrible.”
This type of wild yam often appears as a snack on Tagbanua tables. Due to the poisonous nature of the kurot, it’s not recommended to try this recipe unless there is a Tagbanua grandma present. The practice before eating is to first offer the processed kurot to a dog, as the animal is believed to be able to sense the poison. If it refuses to eat, it means the toxins are still present.
1. Peel and chop the kurot.
2. Place under seawater for at least three days
3. Wash with fresh water and squeeze the kurot. Discard the milky water that comes out.
4. Repeat the washing and squeezing process until the end water is clear.
5. Steam until cooked.
6. Pound and season with salt or sugar to taste.
In 2007, I got a rare opportunity to spend a few days in the village of Cabugao, one of two communities that house the majority of Coron’s 2,000 Tagbanuas. This area was closed off to tourism and required permission from the elders to visit.
From a muddy bay on Coron’s south-east coast, a shallow stream led us to the interior where the Tagbanua kept their houses. Surrounded on three sides by karst formations, Cabugao would have been impossible to find without local help. With thatch-roofed huts and basic wooden structures, the community didn’t look too different from other similarly remote settlements.
The Tagbanuas prepared us a simple welcome snack of steamed backyard-grown kurot and Skyflakes crackers. Knowing the potentially dangerous nature of the wild yam, I first balked at eating this delicacy, causing some amusement among the locals. But it had a pleasantly starchy taste and our hosts smiled knowingly when I came back for seconds.
The Tagbanuas have an oral history that dates back for centuries, and I sat in awe as a village elder recounted long-ago battles between his people and the Spaniards. I later discovered that the older natives didn’t know their exact age — instead of years, they used major events (i.e. “the time of the Japanese” or “when Marcos was dictator”) to indicate their relative age. Many other eye-opening snippets came to light, such as the fact that the Tagbanua had been gathering birds’ nests for generations but didn’t really eat their product. Furthermore, the nesting caves were owned by different families — all of whom inherited these vertical estates from their forefathers.
Most tantalizing was the hint that, despite the bustling tourism in these parts, outsiders have barely seen the beauty of the Tagbanuas’ ancestral domain. Of Coron’s 11 lakes, only two — the stunning Kayangan and Barracuda Lakes — have been opened to the public. The remaining nine remain closely guarded secrets, with most of them so obscure they aren’t even named on a map.
Dinner for the Tagbanua is usually dictated by whatever is caught in the fishing net. On our visit to Cabugao, our local host Darwin was lucky to have scored a huge pugita, or octopus. His wife prepared this protein-rich, caramel-flavored pulutan for our drinking session.
1 large octopus
1 liter Sprite
1 liter water
1. Clean octopus. Discard the eyes, innards and beak.
2. Place octopus in a pot.
3. Mix Sprite with water and pour until the liquid covers the whole octopus.
4. Cover and boil over medium heat for around four hours or until tender.
5. Periodically add water/Sprite if liquid level gets too low.
6. Serve with dip made from vinegar, garlic and salt.
As night fell and the gin began to flow, we tucked into tender octopus meat. Cabugao had yet to undergo rural electrification, which limited our lighting to kerosene lamps and flashlights. Despite the absence of power there was a variety of entertainment options — from a transistor AM radio to a generator-mounted “cinema” built around a cheap DVD player next door.
But my companion and I were interested in a more traditional kind of nightlife. The Tagbanuas have the tablay, a simple love song composed of four short verses. The lyrics are composed on the fly and they’re often sung with an accompanying guitar or ukelele. It took some effort, but after much cajoling we convinced our host to sing one for us. Darwin shook off the gin from his head and came up with this ode to unrequited love. He sang the tablay in his native Tagbanua — unfortunately my translation doesn’t get all its nuances:
You told me you love somebody else
Now I am wallowing in sadness
Where else can I find happiness
But in the arms of my other girlfriend?
Nay Maurit’s Kapeng Bilog
This Tagbanua method of roasting coffee beans is surprisingly similar to that of Singapore and Malaysia, in the sense that sugar is added late in the process to “thicken” the coffee. The resulting beans are cooled then pounded before brewing. This goes well with boiled kamote (sweet potato) and kurot.
1. Using a cooking spoon, put 3 heaping spoonfuls (or takal) of ground kapeng bilog into a 1-liter termos or vacuum flask.
2. Pour piping hot water into flask and stir. Wait for the coffee grounds to sink to the bottom.
3. Cover the flask.
4. Serve into cups. Add sugar and/or creamer to taste.
You can buy Nay Maurit’s coffee at Calamianes Expeditions & Ecotours Office, 11 San Agustin St, Brgy 3, Coron, Palawan.
Neighbors can always tell when Nay Maurit is roasting coffee because the scent travels throughout Lajala. The custom here is to offer the brew to anyone who drops by. “Ang nakakaamoy, makaka-inom (Anyone who smells it can drink it),” as the saying goes. Not surprisingly, an impromptu gathering often materializes after the beans are cooked. Today is no exception, and I find myself hanging out with a few of the neighbors.
We savor the fresh coffee together, swapping stories about our respective worlds. Nay Maurit is baffled that I live in a house without a backyard (an apartment, actually) and wonders what kind of plants I’m able to grow at home (err… nothing…) She later apologizes for her simple house. I tell her that this little abode — with its wooden floors, thatch roof and an abundant supply of friends and family — is alive with the spirit of her people.
My head is buzzing with caffeine but I take another cup. The coffee is good, but the experience that accompanies it — and the memories that it evoked of my other encounters with the Tagbanua — are so much better.
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.