Isles of sweetness first taste of Tawi-tawi

I never associated small island communities with plenty of sweets, cookies and other desserts and confections. Maybe because, small islands don’t have extensive agriculture areas to cultivate ingredients for making rice, sugarcane, fruits, etc.Seafood is more top of mind.

My first visit in 2018 to a string of small islands grouped as Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost province of the Philippines, started and ended on sweet notes. Before we could indulge in crabs, sea urchins, conches and different kinds of fish, we rolled over sugar and candies. Sweets were offered on our first day and also served as our send-off breakfast minutes before we flew out.

When we dropped by Mindanao State University Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography on Sanga-Sanga Island before embarking on our research adventure, its chancellor Mary Joyce Z. Guinto-Sali, a Pampangan who married a Tausug, proffered plates and trays of local sweets and cookies with coffee. Talks soon took a turn about the cookies, something new to the Metro Manila visitors.

I was most familiar with the bawlo or baulo. They are bite-size sponge cakes molded into cute, little shapes such as fish, flower, seashells, etc. Called bulua in Maguindanao, they are mostly found in Muslim communities. Many years ago, I enjoyed eating them in a pagana, the traditional Meranaw feast, in Marawi City in Lanao del Sur. In Cotabato City, which has large Maguindanao and Iranun populations, baulo is sold in pasalubong stores. It was also sold at the public market in the capital town of Bongao, bouncing in large plastic bags. I later found out there are also different cakes enjoyed in Indonesia called bolu, from the Portuguese bolo, meaning cake, particularly sponge cake. From the etymology, I surmised that wheat cake was brought by Portuguese traders to Indonesia and then reached southern Philippines.

Other items on the tray were curiosities. The mahmol, a round cookie, and the jintan, a flower- or heart-shaped cookie, were both covered in white powder, maybe flour or powdered milk. They were both crumbly and tasted almost the same, like arrowroot cookies, both likable.

Daral, a rolled crepe with sweet coconut meat.

The batang burok was a unique one — crunchy cylinders of fried siomai or lumpia wrapper dusted with powdered milk and sugar. But tuke is my favorite — sweet-spicy strings of fried flour.

Tawi-Tawi food, including sweets and pastries, is a melange of influences from the neighboring province of Sulu, populated predominantly by the Tausug people, and from Malaysia and Indonesia, which had contacts with the people of Tawi-Tawi since ancient times, as well as the Sama, which is the native culture of the province. It is hard now to discern which is Tausug, which is Sama and others in the food.

Sugar-encrusted fried dough tabid-tabid.

When we arrived in Sibutu Island, our hosts served as a snack of buko pie, which was different from what we knew. In Laguna and other provinces, the buko pie is in the familiar shape of a pie filled with soft meat of a young coconut. Here in the island known for traditional boat-building, the buko pie was cut up into small diamond shapes for serving and consisted of a top and bottom layer of cake or pastry with a filling in between of bukayo, candied strips of coconut meat.

In between feasts of crabs, mantis shrimps and scorpion spider conch or kahanga, we also had sweet snacks of jintan and tuke plus lara-lara, chewy kikiam-shaped, fried dough encrusted with melted sugar. They come multi-colored — purple, fuchsia, red — just like the bright hues of their mats and other handicrafts.

Sunset on a cluster of Sama stilt houses on Bongao Strait.

In the house of the governor on Bongao Island, with the view of the sun setting on Sulu Sea and a small, all-white white mosque among the coconut palms by the shore, we feasted on purple pitis, steamed sticky rice with fillings of sweetened coconut meat; pasung, a kind of suman steamed in cones of banana leaves, similar to sayongsong of Surigao del Norte or sarungsong or alisuso of Samar; and binglo, a jelly-like dessert said to be made from the starch extracted from a palm pith.

A curious sweet delicacy of palm starch called binglo.

These are the sweet snacks that are more traditionally Filipino, made of rice and palms, categorized under kakanin. Curiously, there is an abundance of sweet snacks made of wheat flour here, such as the isikalang or tabid-tabid, fried dough, which accompanied the kakanin.

As we waited for our early-morning flight to Zamboanga City, Nursida D. Jaluddin, igal dancer and newfound friend, plucked us out of the airport in Sanga-Sanga and brought us to her house just across to eat breakfast of local fares she cooked — a bountiful spread of sweet delights.

Panyam, pangi-pangi and putli mandi.

There were panyam, little pancakes of rice flour the shape of flowers, which I observed also being made in Malaysia, particularly in Sarawak, where it is called penyalam or penyaram; pangi-pangi, fried dough shaped into loops; putli mandi, balls of rice flour sprinkled with fresh, grated coconut meat and with fillings of sweetened coconut meat; and daral, rolled crepe also with candied coconut meat. We hurriedly stuffed our stomachs and bags as the plane landed. Our memories of this visit were further flavored with sweetness of many kinds.

A version of the buko pie we had in Sibutu Island.

Nursida Jaluddin, who can prepare many local sweets, is a mesmerizing performer of the Sama igal.

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