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A touch of tabon-tabon, a taste of tapul

They call it pidjanga, a very thin, very flat pancake consisting of fish -- tiny, newly hatched fingerlings of freshwater white goby (or bi-ya in Tagalog), salted, dried in clumps on banana leaves and dipped in boiling hot oil for five seconds to get that delicate crispiness -- and then dipped in native vinegar for that hiss-worthy bite.

In Agusan del Norte, home to Intercontinental Hotel’s visiting chef at CafĂ© Jeepney, Antonio "Jun-Jun" Amihan, Jr., this delicacy is dried for three days by the side of the road and sold as a staple in the market. The locals adopted the recipe from the indigenous folk, the Manobo, whose dietary practices tend to be simple and straightforward.

A refreshing drink provided the journalists trying out the chef’s stuff was the dalandan (native lime) juice with mint leaves, which has a combination of cucumber and dalandan, balancing each other rather than canceling each other out, with a hint of honey and sprigs of mint swirling in the water and ice. Good to have on a hot day. This isn’t strictly traditional Caraga, but it cleans the palate for one to better appreciate what’s offered.

Mr. Amihan, proprietor of Amihan’s Catering, brought with him a couple of unique items from Northern Mindanao for "Stopover," the hotel’s ongoing series of promotions featuring regional cuisine. Until July 31, patrons can try the traditional fare of the Caraga Administrative Region (including Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur, and the Dinagat Islands).

"You don’t have to have very expensive ingredients, but you do need the native ingredients for these dishes," said Mr. Amihan in the vernacular. Tanglad (lemongrass) is utilized for most of the soups, particularly to temper the oiliness of fish and add a pleasant aroma; tuba (coconut wine) is used to boil duck for pato tim; bamboo shoots are added to a beef dish; tapul (violet rice) is the base for biko (a lightly sweet, slightly smoky, sticky rice cake); and tabon-tabon (an indigenous fruit, round, brown and hard) along with biasong (native lime, similar to kaffir lime) is used for kinilaw (seafood salad in native vinegar, similar to ceviche).

There’s the odd dish -- such as Caraga beef intestines and paklay (more innards) -- but most dishes are familiar to any Filipino, with a slight twist to the way they are prepared. Kinilaw is a fairly common dish, but in the Caragan way, tabon-tabon (which turns white when soaked in the palm vinegar) is used in place of the ginger the folks in Luzon employ; just a hint of it keeps the salad from being too fishy.

The Caragans also want a bit of sweetness and a lot more sauce. The everyday afritada (a stew of beef in tomato sauce) is made thicker with liver paste. For the dish of river eel with black beans, sea salt is used to clean the fish and camote (sweet potato) flour is used as coating, lending a bit of sweetness to it and also thickening the sauce. The Humba Caraga (pork belly in pineapple and banana blossoms) has honey and star anise in it.

Mr. Amihan, who has been cooking since he was in the sixth grade -- it was the fiesta of April 5, 1985 when he first started helping his father in the catering business -- believes that slow cooking should be practiced still (although he admitted that given the short preparation time they were given on that first day, he was unable to follow his inclinations to the letter -- one would expect the humba to have been a little bit softer otherwise).

For the most part, the buffet is a creditable job at providing a taste of the Caragan lifestyle. (Business World)

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