Few things do a better job of helping us understand a culture than local food. This month, we sit at the table of the Tausug, an ethnolinguistic group native to southern Mindanao, specifically in the western region, from the Sulu Archipelago — including Basilan and Tawi-Tawi — all the way to the Zamboanga Peninsula and its neighboring areas.
The word Tausug means “people of the current”, and their political influence in Southeast Asia extended to territories under the Sultanate of Sulu, a royal house that ruled the region from the 1400s to the early 1900s. The Tausug population is spread across Mindanao, as well as in north Borneo in Malaysia, but a culinary tradition — tended across time by community rituals — binds them across national boundaries.
We pick out four dishes from a dulang or latal, a platter of various Tausug dishes served as communal feasts during special occasions. The dishes reveal the bounty of the Southeast Asian landscape — like coconut, lemongrass and turmeric — and a penchant for fiery flavors.
1. Tiyula itum
For the Tausug, asking a man, “So when will we get to feast on tiyula itum?” is not-so-subtle code for, “And when are you getting married?”
This special dish with a black soup seasoned (and blackened) with burnt coconut is a mainstay at weddings and all other celebrations. The most salient characteristic of tiyula itum is its color,
a green-tinted dark gray from the
burnt coconut that is added to create its distinct flavor.
To make tiyula itum, cubes of beef are rubbed with a condiment called pamapa, a blend of burnt coconut paste and spices that may include pounded ginger and garlic. The beef is then braised with fried onion and garlic before turmeric, ginger, chopped galangal and pounded bird’s eye chilies, or siling labuyo, are added. Cooking tiyula itum is usually a communal activity among the menfolk.
2. Beef Kulma
Because Tausug communities are located along coastal areas, seafood is considered daily fare. The Sulu Archipelago is a particularly rich fishing ground, so seafood is plentiful and inexpensive. It’s also the reason why many dishes for special occasions feature meats like beef and chicken.
And beef kulma is as special as it gets. The rich stew is flavored with coconut milk, cinammon, lemon juice and lemongrass, and spiced with curry powder, red pepper and paprika. Dollops of peanut butter (that’s right) are added for a creamy, nutty taste. It’s one of the dishes that shows the kinship Tausugs have with the rest of the region, and the ethnic roots they share.
3. Chicken Piyanggang
It’s not a party unless there’s chicken piyanggang, a dish that’s also blackened with the same burnt coconut paste used to flavor tiyula itum. The meaning of “piyanggang” is a description of how it’s made — “grill after marinating”. Coconut milk is then added for a creamier finish. The chicken — marinated in a mix of onion, garlic, salt, lemongrass and the special black paste — is a literal labor of love. Served as the main entrée for the Tausug traditional wedding dulang (feast), it’s cooked specially for the bride and groom.
Piyassak holds the same stature in Tausug cuisine as foie gras does in the French culinary tradition. But instead of goose liver, this delicacy uses beef liver as its main ingredient, sliced into bite-sized cubes, because the Tausug believe digestion begins in the mouth.
The liver is fried in a pan and flavored with pounded ginger, garlic, turmeric, black pepper, lemongrass and burnt coconut, which the Tausug believe has anti-carcinogenic properties. Coconut milk is then poured into the mix
and the dish is left to cook until the liquid is completely absorbed by the liver cubes.
Food styling by Nayna Katigbak
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.