Monday, May 1, 2017

Culinary Journeys: A Taste of the Secret Kitchens of Samar

Shaped and defined by the abundant harvests from the land and seas and a colorful history, the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour by the Department of Tourism Eastern Visayas and the City Tourism Offices of Calbayog and Catbalogan showcased the richness and diversity of Samar's distinct local and regional cuisine. Two days of flavorful experiences reflected Samar's unique culinary heritage, with each tasty bite providing insights to a resilient culture.  


The Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour is part of the Department of Tourism's effort to highlight the rich and diverse culinary traditions of the Philippines under the umbrella campaign, Flavors of the Philippines. An offshoot of the recent Madrid Fusion, an annual food festival celebrating the shared history and cuisine of the Philippines and Spain, the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour focuses on traditional and regional flavors weaving its own tasty notes in the colorful and flavorful fabric of Philippine cuisine. Read on for a unique taste of regional dishes that have endured the test of time, lovingly preserved by the guardians of Samar to be experienced and shared by the next generation...


They say the best way to understand and appreciate any culture is to taste the flavors of their unique cuisine, and that's how my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour began. An early red-eye flight from Manila to Calbayog, Samar, kicked off my tasty adventure, landing at Calbayog City Airport by 6:30am just in time for breakfast...


At the Calbayog City Tourism Office, the staff prepared an elaborate spread featuring local dishes. The regional cuisine of Samar is shaped by the natural bounty of the fertile lands and abundant seas, with the agrarian economy and marine resources playing a vital role in Samar's economy and culinary heritage. This is perfectly illustrated in one dish, combining seafood and coconut, one of Samar's main crops, in a flavorful blend with the traditional Binukohang Tinapa at Hipon. Fresh and plump shrimps are mixed with sweet coconut and crab meat topped with another of Samar's iconic staples, tinapa or smoked fish. The briny notes of the fresh seafood play well with the creamy sweetness of the coconut, capped by the smoky hints of tinapa for complex yet balanced flavors.


And just where can you find the best Tinapa in Samar? Everywhere. Asking locals for the best tinapa will only lead to an open-ended discussion, with each household beaming with intense pride with their own recipes for homemade tinapa. Salted, dried, and smoked, the golden hues of fresh smoked fish impart a unique flavor, preserving the briny freshness of the fish. The ever popular tinapa represents Samar's abundant aquatic resources, with access to the day's freshest catch, and one of the pillars of Samar's vibrant economy. Not to be missed are Samar's Bulad and Labtinao, local dried fish varieties, and popular breakfast staples served with garlic rice, tomatoes, eggs, and a vinegar dip.


My first breakfast in Samar also showcased one of their savory heirloom dishes, the Pork Humba, with tender pork belly stewed and simmered with black beans or taosi. The slabs of pork belly almost melt in your mouth delivering a savory richness followed by a layer of subtle sweetness. It's a hearty and comforting dish, and Samar's version of the adobo is definitely a must try.


To enjoy Pork Humba in the traditional Samar way, you need to pair it with Sinakugan, a sticky red rice poured with hot chocolate. The dish reflects the infusion of Spanish influences, and the sweet and savory pairing is a distinct feature of Samar's regional cuisine. The pairing of contrasting flavors become a recurrent theme in Samar's rich culinary heritage, combining sweet and salty, sweet and spicy, and sweet and savory in many local dishes. And it works. The richness of the pork is gently layered by a comforting sweetness for another hearty meal. 


Chinese influences have also played a role in shaping Philippine cuisine, with the popularity of noodle dishes firmly established in the culinary mainstream. Samar adds its own unique spin to the noodle dish with its Binukohang Pancit, blending noodles with shreds of tender coconut meat cooked with pork, seafood and vegetables for another sweet and savory pairing. The impressive breakfast showcased many of Calbayog's iconic dishes for a tasty welcome to Samar's culinary diversity (more on the epic early morning breakfast at the Calbayog City Tourism Office on my other food blog here at Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour: Flavors of Calbayog).


After a satisfying breakfast, a short early morning city tour around the quaint and serene city of Calbayog's old Spanish Quarter dominated by the Calbayog River offered a glimpse of the city's colorful history. 


By the river, one can stroll past Nijaga Park, the city's largest park named after Calbayog's local hero, Benedicto Nijaga, one of the thirteen martyrs of Bagumbayan during Spanish colonial times. Within the park, one can find a replica of Calbayog's popular Bangon-Bugtong Falls and a monument of national hero Jose Rizal. During my visit, the park was being restored and updated, a sign of the city's emergence and economic prosperity. Downtown, construction of a modern shopping mall is in full swing, as the city is slowly transformed. 


Throughout the tour, remnants of the Spanish colonial era can be seen around the old Spanish Quarter, with ancestral homes owned and restored by the original owners and some of Calbayog's prominent families. The quaint and rustic charm of the ancestral homes add to the laid-back vibe of the city.


The traditional materials of stone and wood are the signature materials of the era, accentuated by large capiz windows...


...and the intricate and ornate wooden carvings. It's reassuring to find these local treasures maintained and preserved as part of the city's historic identity. 


Three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule has left a lasting legacy in the country's history, with the Roman Catholic faith as the major influence that still runs deep in the country's heartbeat. And signs of faith can be seen throughout the city...


...with the massive Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral as the city's main focal point. Built in the early 1800s with coral stone and brick, the cathedral is at the center of Calbayog's social fabric, and integral part of daily life. Time stops in Calbayog, but signs of modernity are cropping up with the construction of a mall downtown, allowing you to experience both the old and the new in one city.


By mid-morning with the sun at its peak, my hosts from the Calbayog City Tourism Office led me to one of the city's favorite local institutions, the fifty-four year old Rebelito's Refreshments and their famous Halo-Halo. The shaved ice dessert, with generous servings of preserved fruits topped with finely shaved ice and evaporated milk, is the perfect remedy to beat the summer heat (more on Rebelito's Refreshments on my other food blog here at Flavors of Calbayog: Chillin' at Rebelito's Refreshments). Consistent with the pairing of contrasting flavors, the sweet Halo-Halo is often paired by locals with the savory Siopao Asado for a comforting snack. Then, it was time to head to Catbalogan for the second part of my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour...


After a leisurely hour and half drive through Samar's picturesque coastal towns, a comforting lunch at Catbalogan's City Grill kicked off another taste of Samar. This is where locals would bring guests during their visit to the capital city, the vibrant "Gateway to Samar." A feast with local seafood marked my flavorful experience at Catbalogan, with City Grill's popular Kinilaw, a savory dish with fresh fish marinated in coconut milk and topped with tart green tomatoes, red onions, and chili (more on City Grill on my other food blog, Flavors of Catbalogan: Comforting Cuisine at City Grill). The range of dishes reflect distinct Spanish, Chinese and Western influences in a wide array of comfort food, including crispy deep-fried Baby Squid, Camaron Rellenado, Grilled Fish, and Pork Ribs.

After lunch and a quick break at the hotel, my hosts from the Catbalogan City Tourism Office then invited me for a taste of Catbalogan's favorite refreshment at Tina's Garden, with their own spin on the Halo-Halo (for more on Tina's Garden, see my post on my other food blog at Flavors of Catbalogan: Cooling Down with the Locals at Tina's Garden). A good tip when traveling is to go where the locals dine, and this is one of them. The signature Halo-Halo at Tina's Garden includes the usual sweet preserved fruits, but it's the addition of sweet and tart pineapples that give their Halo-Halo a flavorful kick, consistent with the sweet and tart pairing loved by locals. This recurring theme in contrasting flavors is also highlighted with the pairing of the savory Pork Sandwich with the Halo-Halo, a popular combo among locals.  


Recharged and rejuvenated, it was time to explore the city's notable landmarks, with a stop at Pieta Park. The park is dedicated to the thousands of victims of the M. V. Dona Paz, regarded as the world's single largest peacetime maritime disaster with many of the victims from Samar.


Right across Pieta Park is the beautiful St. Bartholemew the Apostle Church. Named after the patron saint of Samar, St. Bartholemew the Apostle Church was constructed in 1616, and continues to be maintained by the city's faithful.  The historic church has been witness to the country's tumultuous history, with its ornate and intricate altar preserved through countless generations. The Catholic faith remains a lasting legacy of the Spanish colonial experience, with the church playing a vital role in the everyday lives of locals.


During our visit, a Marian Procession was underway...


...offering yet another glimpse of city's local vibe and pulse. Devotion and faith is part of the city's character and identity, and seeing this first-hand unfolding right before your eyes is an experience in itself.


The city's leading women, decked in colorful gowns with each color depicting a mystery of the rosary, prepared for the traditional procession around the city.


And as the participants assembled for one last photo, the Marian Procession began...

Grey skies loomed overhead, but locals claimed that not once did it rain during the entire history of Catbalogan's traditional Marian Procession. Faith, providence, divine intervention, call it what you want, but it didn't rain that day during the procession.


My hosts from the Catbalogan City Tourism Office then proudly showed me the Rizal Monument located across the Catbalogan City Hall. The sculpture depicts the national hero above his literary works, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, serving as the base held up by three men representing the country's three main island regions. Sculpted by Catbalogan's native son, Miguel Alcazar, the monument is another landmark not to be missed while in Catbalogan.


A short drive from the Rizal Monument is the gleaming white Samar Provincial Capitol built in the early thirties during the American period with The Obelisk as its famous landmark.


Against a dramatic grey sky, The Obelisk stands proud high above the city for all to see with its elegant metallic sheen shifting tones with the ever-changing light.


For an impressive view of the city, head over to Parola Park, the city's lighthouse located on a prominent hill with a panoramic vista of the coast. 


On one side, visitors can enjoy the magnificent view of Maqueda Bay with its equally famous sunset...


...and on the other side, another perspective of Catbalogan City surrounded by lush and verdant hills with a river running through the center. The peak allows visitors an impressive 360 degree view of the city and the bay.


But the city of Catbalogan has even more surprises. Located high above a hill with an impressive view of the coast is M Grand Royale Resort, the city's newest attraction.


With elegant accommodations featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows for spectacular views, M Grand Royale Resort is one of Catbalogan's exciting new property developments. The owners also revealed future plans, including a sauna and a zipline as some of the resorts many attractions (for more on the elegant M Grand Royale Resort, visit their FB Page at https://www.facebook.com/M.Grand.Royale.Resort/). Exciting things are definitely happening in the city of Catbalogan.


A spectacular sunset marked the end of another day, and it was time for another sumptuous feast of local flavors at Orlando's Grill. Located high above the new Diversion Road overlooking the bay, Orlando's Grill is popular among locals for its grilled specialties and fresh seafood. Our dinner began with local Queseo, a native white cottage cheese made with carabao's milk. Great as is with a few slices of fresh tomatoes, the local queseo is another staple ideal for breakfast and snacks.


But it's the Tamalos that made my dinner special. Samar's version of the Tamales traces its origins from the bustling Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade during the early Spanish colonial era, drawing influences from the classic Mexican tamale. But unlike other local variations like the tamales of Pampanga, Bulacan and Batangas, Samar's version is much more savory, with a slab of fork-tender pork belly that melts in your mouth draped in a rich peanut sauce over soft rice flour, steamed and wrapped with banana leaves. The savory richness of the pork lines your palate with its indulgent notes, capped by the sweet peanut sauce followed by a soothing heat from the chili. The dish is unique to Samar, and there's nothing quite like it except in Samar. The blend of sweet, savory, and spicy notes combine in yet another signature taste of Samar (for more on the iconic Tamalos, see my post on my other food blog here at Flavors of Catbalogan: A Tasty Encounter with Tamalo at Orlando's Grill).


Early the next day, a light breakfast at a local homegrown coffee chain, King Bean Cafe, was the perfect start for another day in my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour (more on King Bean Cafe on my other food blog here at Flavors of Catbalogan: Breakfast at King Bean Cafe). Serving a wide variety of coffee creations, light snacks, breakfast, and meals, King Bean Cafe is fast becoming one of the city's emerging favorites. Recently celebrating its first year anniversary, more good things can be expected at King Bean Cafe.


By mid-morning, my hosts from the Catbalogan City Tourism Office prepared yet another sumptuous breakfast spread with homemade seafood dishes high above the city at Tops, located at the new Diversion Road. And with a view like this, it certainly keeps getting better and better each day at #CaptivatingCatbalogan...


Native delicacies of steamed rice cakes, puto, and suman were laid on the table, along with savory homemade seafood dishes including scallops and crispy squid. The famous Tahong Chips from Jiabong were also served, along with the equally famous Adobong Tahong, fresh mussels in jars.


My hosts from the Catbalogan City Tourism Office shared a part of their homes with homemade dishes including Chili Crabs with succulent crabs from the local market...


...and whole Lapu-Lapu with Tausi, a local grouper delicately steamed with black beans and spring onions. The mid-morning breakfast feast reflects Samar's freshest catch of the day and its rich marine resources. The flavors are pure and clean, flavors that can only come from the freshest seafood.  


No feast in Samar will be complete without Bulad, the iconic dried fish with it briny and sweet notes. My experience with the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour made me realize that the rich culinary traditions of Samar are lovingly preserved not only by the city's leading culinary personalities and restaurateurs, but in each home with recipes passed down from one generation to the next. The vibrant culinary heritage of Samar, laid out in an impressive spread, is another memorable experience during my Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour (more on the epic seafood breakfast with a view on my post on my other food blog here at Secret Kitchens of Samar: Flavors of Catbalogan)


For dessert, Samar's native delicacies offered sweet notes to cap the feast of local flavors, with Pinato, Linupak Nga Pinipig, Linupak Nga Bilanghoy, Puto Ligong, Puto Conserva, and Suman Latik, made from local rice, cassava, coconuts, and peanuts.


After the epic mid-morning seafood breakfast at Tops, it was time for the long drive to Tacloban and the flight back to Manila. Along the way, roadside stalls offered a variety of fresh produce from the fertile lands of Samar, including fresh peanuts...


...and local black rice. It's this diversity of fresh local produce that makes Samar's regional cuisine so vibrant and rich.


Along the way, a light lunch at Rutchel's Eatery provided yet another taste of Samar with their famous Native Chicken Tinola (more on Rutchel's Eatery on my other food blog at Flavors of Catbalogan: Going Native at Rutchel's Eatery). The intense notes of the native free-range and organic chicken enriches the light yet flavorful broth, punctuated by hints of ginger. Paired with red rice, it's a classic meal in Samar that remains a favorite among locals for over fifty years. During the aftermath of Yolanda, Rutchel's Eatery answered the call by serving hot meals of tinola to refugees and victims, providing comfort and nourishment with their chicken soup. That's chicken soup for the soul. And the heart. Samar-style.


The road trip from Samar to Tacloban takes me to to the famed San Juanico Bridge, the classic landmark connecting the provinces of Samar and Leyte with its graceful arch-shaped truss design over the San Juanico Straight.


The bright red tones of the steel arch prominently stands in contrast against the blue skies and waters of San Juanico Straight, a fitting finale to a memorable culinary journey with the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour. The San Juanico Bridge is the country's longest, over 2 kilometers in length, and an endearing landmark in Eastern Visayas. 


The elegant serpentine form of San Juanico Bridge is just one of many memorable experiences in two amazing days in Samar. As Samar slowly fades in the distant horizon, new flavors are waiting to be discovered in the bustling city of Tacloban.


The road to Tacloban is dotted by countless reminders of Yolanda, including this sea vessel pushed up by the massive storm surge on the coastal road, now preserved as a monument to the calamity.


As we entered the city of Tacloban, the beautiful and pristine white Leyte Provincial Capitol Building stands proud reflecting a resurgent city on the rise and the people's collective hopes and aspirations.


In Tacloban, a new generation of talented chefs, bakers and food entrepreneurs are leading the way in transforming the local culinary landscape, and one of them is Miyara patisserie, a local and homegrown concept offering indulgent desserts (more on Miyara Patisserie on my other food blog at Flavors of Tacloban: Sweet Indulgence at Miyara Patisserie, Tacloban's Sweet Spot.). This is Tacloban's very own sweet spot where you can find the city's best Banoffee Pie and Chocolate Ganache Cake. It's the perfect sweet ending to an awesome two days of culinary discovery and rediscovery in Eastern Visayas with the Secret Kitchens of Samar Kulinarya Tour. 


For the flight home to Manila, my hosts from the Catbalogan City Tourism Office and the Department of Tourisim Eastern Visayas made sure I had some native delicacies to relive my Karasa experience, the local expression of delight and deliciousness, with a variety of Samar's traditional delicacies including the Binagol, Chocolate Moron, and Sagmani, made from sticky rice or root crops, steamed in coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaves.


Local cookies like Samar's Corioso Cookies, Spanish-style butter cookies; and Roscas, crisp sweet bites sprinkled with sugar...


...Cocadas, Decana, Salvaro and Lunga Candy added to a flavorful mix of goodies.


Samar's own take on hopia, the popular Chinese-inspired bean-filled mooncake, is given a new local twist with the Hopia de Pili and Hopia Langka, filled with local pili nuts and jackfruit.


The famous Penato is another local favorite, a crisp and sweet rice cracker with peanuts and sesame seeds, and a popular pasalubong from Samar.


Jiabong's famous Tahong Chips made from mussels was one of my favorites during the mid-morning breakfast feast at Tops, and I had a big smile when this was part of my take-home package.


The famous seafood condiment, Sisi, is another classic from Samar, with fermented rock oysters in sinamak. Pair this as a condiment to other seafood dishes for a winning combination.


Jars of Adobong Tahong rounded out my package from Samar, great with garlic fried rice. Two days in Samar is not enough to discover the entire width and breadth of the local cuisine, with so much more to taste and discover. But two days is enough to give you a hint of the vibrant local culinary traditions of Samar, and thanks to the Department of Tourism Eastern Visayas and the City Tourism Offices of Calbayog and Catbalogan, I had the opportunity to experience "karasa" with Samar's traditional flavors. The country's culinary traditions are alive and well, and Samar's distinct regional cuisine are just a part of the bigger culinary landscape in the Flavors of the Philippines.

For more information on Eastern Visayas, visit the Department of Tourism's cool FB Page for Eastern Visayas at https://www.facebook.com/easternvisayas/

Solo Expeditions is now on Facebook and Instagram, check out my FB Page at https://www.facebook.com/SoloExpeditions/ and scroll through my IG Feed at https://www.instagram.com/dudeforfood/ for more updates on cool destinations and good eats and enjoy the ride...

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