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A Birder-Foodie’s List: Zamboanga

by Karen Ochavo

During the Zamboanga club trip on the first weekend of October, our group absolutely enjoyed not only the birding but also the eating! The food in Zamboanga is greatly influenced by its history, local culture, and natural environment. Many of us were first time visitors to “Asia’s Latin City”, so several of the food we tried were lifers. We thought, since we make bird lists for every trip, why don’t we, just for fun, make a food list too? Here’s a rundown of selected Zamboanga fares which made our trip extra memorable.

Made of steamed glutinous rice filled with vermicelli noodles and egg and wrapped in banana leaf, the tamal is a carb-on-carb delicacy that was the perfect breakfast after our early morning birding at Pasonanca Natural Park. It is similar to the tamales of Mexico except the later uses corn instead of rice.

We had a taste of Moro cuisine at Bay Tal Mal, a restaurant that started as a coffee shop in Basilan serving local brewed coffee and Tausog delicacies. The name Bay Tal Mal was derived from the Arabic word Bayt-ul Mal meaning ‘house of wealth’. It was a house of wealth indeed as we were served with latal, a platter rich in flavors of different Tausog dishes: at the center is tyulah itum (beef stew that’s black because of the spices mixed with burnt coconut), and around it are small portions of piyassak (beef liver), kulma (beef curry), beef kiyaliya, chicken kiyaliya, pyanggang (chicken in blackened coconut curry), calamares (squid), fish utak-utak, fried fish, and cucumber with sambal (chili sauce).

Also served at Bay Tal Mal is the buko halo-halo with durian, a unique twist to the ice-based Filipino dessert. In addition to the usual mix of beans, gelatin, nata de coco, saba banana, leche flan and ube ice cream, this version of halo-halo has sweet corn, durian jam, and shaved coconut, all served in a coconut shell.

It seems Zamboangueños are fond of gata (coconut milk) based dishes. For our lunch in Barangay La Paz, we had ginataang gabi (taro) with string beans and ginataang nangka (jackfruit) with dried fish, served with fragrant rice. These warm soupy dishes were perfect for the cool breeze in the hilly birding site.

All throughout our birding in Zamboanga, we were treated to a variety of merienda made with local crops. We had biko with canela, Zamboanga’s version of sweet sticky rice flavored with cinnamon. We also had kamanting (cassava), kamote (sweet potato), and rebusao (saba bananas sliced and fried with sugar). We were always eating something yummy during birding breaks… Or was it birding during eating breaks? Mmmm…

Let’s not forget the local fruits we had for merienda/dessert. Everyone was a fan of marang, including myself who tried it for the first time. Its texture is in between that of nangka and guyabano, and its flavor incomparable with just the right amount of sweetness. We also had some local bayabas (guava) while birding in La Paz. It is a favorite of the Guiabero, which we luckily saw there while munching on the succulent, green and pink fruit. The Guiabero must have been envious of our bayabas!

Probably the most unique dish we tried in Zamboanga is oko-oko—rice cooked inside a sea urchin’s shell without the spines. The flavour of sea urchin is absorbed by the rice, giving it a very tasty, umami flavour. To eat the rice, the shell is gently cracked open from the top opening. We tried oko-oko together with other interesting dishes while we were in Sta. Cruz Island for our last day of birding.

Eating chupa culo, Spanish for suck ass, was definitely the highlight of our Zamboanga culinary experience! Similar to escargot, it is a dish made of mangrove snails cooked in coconut milk with pako (fern), but unlike escargot, the snail meat is cooked while inside the shell. It got its name from the way it it’s eaten: the shell is sucked first in the larger opening to loosen the meat, then sucked next at the culo or bottom end, and finally sucked once more at the larger opening until the meat effortlessly comes out. The name sounds bad, but it tastes really good.

Our beachside banquet at Sta. Cruz Island wasn’t complete without the freshest catch from the sea! We had grilled fish and squid, fresh lato (sea grapes), and crabs together with oko-oko and chupa culo for lunch. It was the perfect finale to our birding at the island, after ticking the Philippine Megapode off our target list.

Grateful to the Zamboanga City Tourism Office for hosting a dinner at Alavar Seafood Restaurant—origin of the famous Alavar sauce. The thick, orange sauce is made of coconut milk, aligue (crab fat), and a blend of spices that’s a secret recipe of the Alavar family. It is used to cook seafood such as the crabs served at our dinner and the shrimps we had for lunch at Pasonanca. It’s so delicious you’d want unli-rice with your seafood!

Satti is the Zamboanga version of the Southeast Asian satay (skewered and grilled meat usually served with peanut sauce). Some of us tried it at Jimmy’s Satti Haus while waiting for our evening flight back to Manila, though the locals commonly eat it in the morning for breakfast. The sticks of satti were served with slices of puso (rice cooked inside a heart-shaped pouch made of coconut leaves) in a red orange, sweet and spicy sauce.

Last but not the least are the pasalubong we brought home from Zamboanga. Lokot-Lokot is a sweet, crunchy roll made with rice flour. It reminded me of barquillos (Spanish wafer rolls), except the lokot-lokot looks like rolled thin noodles. Baulo looks like madeleines (French pastry) and tastes like toasted mamon (sponge cake), but made more scrumptious with desiccated coconut. The Muslim communities in Zamboanga serve these delicacies during special occasions such as the Hari Raya or Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan (month of fasting).

There’s a famous saying that goes, “a hungry birder is an angry birder.” Just kidding, we invented that! But it’s so true, because without the endless meals and snacks throughout our trip, how could we concentrate on spotting and survive all the walking and hiking while birding? Special thanks to MJ Bugante for arranging this delightful food trip, I mean birding trip to Zamboanga. We can’t wait to go back!


  1. Thomas Kuenzel

    Hi Birders, I sent a birding report about 1-day-birding around fish ponds in Pulopandan, Negros, Occidental, to Arne Jensen. Hi instructed me to send it to e-bon. My report is now attached here. Best regards, Thomas

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