Tinagtag: a Maguindanaon delicacy best eaten with coffee and coco milk

PIKIT, North Cotabato (MindaNews/28 June) — Here in Mindanao, native delicacies have often become “landmarks” of a place especially when you are travelling by bus. In almost every town’s terminal or bus stop, a unique delicacy is being sold that distinguishes it from the rest.

You are in Davao when you see vendors peddling Durian candies in all forms and sizes. You are in Matalam when you see the Ilonggo’s Apa. And you are in Pikit when you see the complicated-looking Tinagtag.

Seeing young boys hurriedly getting on buses, lugging rolled Tinagtag and coaxing passengers to buy one is your visual cue that you have finally arrived in Pikit—a Maguindanaon-dominated town in North Cotabato which has been known in past years as a battleground between government troops and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Although Tinagtag can also be found in other towns where Maguindanaons live, this delicacy has become synonymous to Pikit for it is in this town where you will find makers of this unique Maguindanaon treat. Inside the Pikit market, there  is a row of makeshift stalls where Maguindanaon women sell Tinagtag along with other Maguindnaon delicacies like Panyalam, Kumukunsi and Dudol. On rare occasions, you can witness Kulintang makers from Datu Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao playing their instruments as they try to sell these to market goers, enriching your Tinagtag-buying or eating experience.

Derived from the word “tagtag” which means to hit, beat or tap, Tinagtag is a famous delicacy among Maguindanaons—one of at least 10 Moro tribes living in Mindanao. It is made of ground rice and sugar, mixed with a little bit of 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.

Best pair

Some people like to eat Tinagtag as it is. Others like it with beverages such as coffee. But for Zaynab Ampatuan, a Moro rights’ group leader, it shouldn’t just be plain coffee. “I grew up eating Tinagtag paired with my mother’s unique mixture of coffee and gata (coconut milk). It’s the perfect accompaniment,” Zaynab says.

For decades, this sweet and crunchy treat has been served at celebrations only like weddings, baptismal rites, kanduli or thanksgiving and Eid’l Fitr—a feast which marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. Through the years though, the traditions surrounding the preparation and serving of this food have evolved. At present, the Tinagtag is readily available in markets, carinderias or from vendors at bus terminals particularly in Pikit, North Cotabato.

Syla Kadalim, 40, who learned to cook the Tinagtag when she was a little girl recalls a story passed on to her by her elders. It is said that their ancestors believe that people with ill intentions should not be around while it is being cooked for this makes a bad-tasting and easily rancid Tinagtag.

Syla says Tinagtag can last up to about three months even without refrigeration, making it a favorite padala or pabaon of Maguindanaons to their relatives working or living abroad.

Vanishing Delicacy?

Syla, who is often hired to cook  Tinagtag during weddings and the Ramadan says  fewer and fewer Maguindanaons know how to actually cook it  “The accessibility of the Tinagtag does not necessarily mean that this delicacy is flourishing,” she says. “People just buy in the market, without knowing how it was cooked. The traditions and process of cooking the Tinagtag are barely passed on to the younger generation,” she adds.

Norhaimi, a resident of Barangay Buliok in Pagalungan town observes that the Tinagtag is now rarely served in celebrations like weddings.

Both Syla and Norhaimi agree that another big factor in the decline of Tinagtag-making among Maguindanaons is the rising prices of rice and sugar, the main ingredients. Majority of Maguindanaons live below the poverty line. They can barely afford these ingredients, which are also basic commodities.

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are,” said the famous gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Indeed, food has become reflective of people’s cultures, traditions and experiences.

For the Maguindanaons, the intricate appearance of the Tinagtag seems to represent their complex history as a people and their arduous struggles to keep a hold of Mindanao as their home. Its brittleness seems to symbolize the delicate state of peace and security where they live. But on the other hand, the Tinagtag’s sweetness also represents the hope and continued happy moments in their lives despite the odds and the rare celebrations for which it was cooked.

The next time you’re in Pikit or around Maguindanao, grab a bite of the Tinagtag and get a taste of Maguindanaon history, culture and tradition. (Ruby Thursday More/MindaNews)