North Cotabato: Flavors of the road

While landmarks could be most common travel guide, the native delicacies sold in terminals and even along the highways could also tell you where you are. Such is the case if one takes a trip along North Cotabato.

If you’re coming from Cotabato City, the first place where the bus would stop is Pigcawayan, a rice-producing town dominated by settlers from the provinces of Iloilo and Antique in Western Visayas. Here the most popular native delicacy is the baye-baye. It is made from coconut water, grated scraped young coconut meat, sugar and toasted pinipig (pounded rice grains).

Vendors greet bus or jeepney passengers with baye-baye. Unlike the baye-baye in Iloilo that are wrapped in banana leaves, those in Pigcwayan are wrapped in red Japanese paper. Ilonggos in Pigcawayan are the known makers of this sweet native delicacy.

Aside from baye-baye, the vendors also carry sugar-coated peanuts on their kalalaw or winnowing baskets. The baye-baye sells at P10 per pack and the peanuts at P5 a pack.

But 10 years ago, baye-baye started to dwindle in the terminals and even in the local market, as only a few makers are left in town.  Local folks said the younger generation of Ilonggos are no longer interested in making the delicacy.

Seventeen kilometers away from Pigcawayan is the bustling town of Midsayap. As far as I can remember however there’s nothing much special in the food that the vendors are selling in the terminal. There’s no baye-baye, only peanuts and fish crackers.

You would know if you are already in Pikit if you hear vendors offer you boiled corn and the town’s most famous delicacy: tinagtag. The latter is a Maguindanaon delicacy made of ground rice and sugar, mixed with little water. The glutinous mixture is poured over a coconut shell drilled with small holes and attached to a wooden stick held with a rope and tied to a pole. This contraption allows the cook to distribute the mixture evenly.

The mixture then drips onto a pan of boiling oil as the cook taps the stick while making a circling motion, forming a round, thin crust with the crisscrossing strips fried until golden brown. It is removed from the pan using a pair of wooden sticks and folded like tacos.

Rolled Tinagtag which comes in a plastic packaging are sold at restaurants and bus terminals in North Cotabato Province. Maguindanaons often send it to their relatives abroad.  Mindanews Photo by Ruby Thursday MoreIn the bus terminal, a pack of tinagtag costs P10.

Unlike the baye-baye in Pigcawayan, tinagtag is available inside the public market, where Maguindanaon women sell it in a row of stalls along with panyalam, kumukunsi and dudol.

If you are travelling in your own vehicle, another must-try in Pikit is the native chicken barbecue in a small store called Pikit Highway Barbecue.

For years, I have gone to different places in Mindanao where I’ve tasted different chicken barbecues, but nothing beats the native chicken barbecue in Pikit.

Couple Ernesto and Myrna Misyon, in ther 50s, owns the barbecue store and has been running the business for 20 years already.

Ernesto says that their regular customers would have their orders reserved as early as noontime. The barbecue sells at P45 to P50 each.

“Sometimes, by 4p.m., we would run out of chicken barbecues,” he said adding they can sell up to 20 chickens in a day.

Yet another must-try in Pikit is the pastil, a native delicacy common in Moro areas. It is prepared with steamed rice and shredded chicken then wrapped with banana leaf. Although it is also available in most of the towns of North Cotabato, the best pastil for me is in Pikit.

Pastil saved the day for me when I was covering the war in Pikit in 2003. It was the most readily available food since we were always on the run.  Susan’s Carenderia beside the bus terminal offers the best pastil in town. And mind you, they also serve the best deep-fried dalag (mudfish), a freshwater fish common in surrounding towns in Liguasan Marsh.

Next to Pikit, the best pastil for me is in Kabacan. When I was in college in Kabacan, pastil was one of our alternative meals whenever our pockets ran dry.

Aside from the public market, it is also sold in the canteens inside the University of Southern Mindanao. During our time, about 10 years ago, it was sold at P5 each. Today at the public market, it is sold at P10 each.

The crunchy apa of Matalam. Mindanews Photo by Keith BacongcoIn the neighboring town of Matalam, vendors would greet passengers with their native and crunchy delicacy called apa, sold for P20 per pack.

In the past, Matalam is the stopover of the Weena buses plying the Davao-Cotabato route. But in the last three years I think, the bus would stop for breakfast or lunch in Kidapawan City, when the local government started the construction of the new public market that led to the eviction of the carenderias beside the Matalam terminal.

Now the buses stop for 20 to 30 minutes to allow those who want to eat at the Kidapawan City terminal.

The city is so known for its variety of fruits that some passengers would get off the bus to buy lanzones, mangosten and rambutan.

The fruit season used to be between August and October. This was also the period when the people of Kidapawan would celebrate the Timpupo Festival, which is no longer celebrated due to dwindling fruit harvests.

About seven years ago, I could still remember that many of the local folk sold their rambutan from their backyard for just P5 a kilo. But lately, the price of the fruit has reached P80 per kilo with the yield becoming fewer.

The last highway stop is in Makilala, which is also known for different varieties of fruit.

But it’s the Four Kids Kambingan in front of Makilala Central Elementary School that I can’t afford to miss whenever we are on our way to nearby towns for coverage. You must try their adobo, kaldereta, kilawin, papaitan and sinigang for just P40 per serving.

So far it is the best kambingan I’ve discovered along the road of North Cotabato. (Keith Bacongco/ MindaNews)