Good food, more often than not, brings people closer together. The use of flavorful ingredients and spices, partnered with the proper cooking technique, creates well-loved dishes that transcend time and space. Food also defines a culture and makes it stand out from others.
There’s no shortage of hearty dishes in the Philippines, as each region in the country specializes in a particular food that emphasizes their tradition. While all Filipinos are familiar with staples, like adobo, kare-kare, menudo, and sisig, there’s more to Filipino cuisine than what’s popularized by major food chains or restaurants.
If you travel south to Mindanao and explore the regions of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi (ZamBaSulTa), you’ll be surprised at the variety of delicious and hearty food that the locals thoroughly enjoy. Unfortunately, not many people know about these recipes as they tend to focus on the known dishes from Luzon and Visayas.
Jose Miguel Cabel Moreno, a restaurateur who was born in Jolo, Sulu, and raised in Zamboanga, was exposed to these heart-warming and filling dishes as they were a constant presence in his childhood home. He fondly recalls the smell of various spices and roasted coconut, a staple ingredient in Sulu cuisine.
He wanted to bring the flavor and experience of ZamBaSulTa cuisine to people in the metro, especially those who have yet to try the cuisine. Intent on raising the flag of his hometown’s cuisine and its neighboring provinces, he opened a restaurant called Palm Grill on the corner of Tomas Morato and Scout Castor in Quezon City.
“A lot of people asked me why I established the restaurant in Metro Manila and not in Zamboanga. Worst, most of them doubted me for offering delicacies and cuisines unknown to many. My answer has always been simple: because I’m proud of the culture I grew up in,” Moreno said during the fifth anniversary and relaunch of Palm Grill.
In 2020, however, he faced the challenge of the pandemic, which threatened the restaurant’s existence. But with the help of friends and family, plus Moreno’s dedication to achieving his initial goal, the restaurant survived.
Now, Palm Grill celebrates five years of championing Southern Mindanaoan cuisine to people in the metro.
Guests can enjoy an array of dishes that feature coconut. There’s the dulang—a special tray served during royal banquets and special occasions. It symbolizes a feast of flavors and the abundance of the Tausug culinary history.
Pianggang manok (green chicken) is also a menu option. It’s cooked in a blend of seven Asian spices, burnt coconut, and cooked in coconut milk before being grilled to perfection.
Another ZamBaSulTa cuisine favorite available in Palm Grill is the tiyula itum, a black beef soup of the Tausugs. Its black color comes from burnt coconut meat, which gives its distinct color and flavor profile.
Moreno hopes that the food he serves, which is his family’s interpretation of ZamBaSulTa specialties, will change the negative perception of Southern Mindanao and highlight the region’s rich history and culture that the locals appreciate until today.