Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

Chef Tibong Promotes Ilonggo Heritage by Getting You Hungry

By joseph batcagan and glory moralidad

The food we eat tells us who we are as a people. As Ilonggos, we don’t find it surprising to see our food have a distinctive connection to our culture. But more importantly, food also reflects the soul of our society. Kare-kare, sinigang, pancit molo, or KBL can be proud symbols of one’s ethnicity. Chef Tibong understood that more than most.

Chef Tibong Jardeleza inside Rafael's
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

Renowned chef Rafael “Tibong” Jardaleza, Jr. is one of the first to come to mind when it comes to traditional Ilonggo cuisine. He may not have been the first to advocate for it, but he’s certainly one of its most vocal proponents in today’s digital era. He’s been featured in more national and international TV shows than we could count. His restaurant, Rafael’s La Cocina Del Sur, located inside a sleepy Jaro barangay, is even worth the trisikad trip if only to taste his sumptuous treats like the Paella Negra and the Lengua Con Setas Oliva.

rafael's la cocina del sur sign
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

To top it off, Chef Tibong also hails from a family that’s known for its cooking. Esca’s and Afrique’s, two popular restaurant brands in Iloilo City, are the names of his lola and tatay, respectively. Cooking royalty, indeed.

For a chef whose renown was in part because of his advocacy of traditional cuisine, this statement might validate his cooking philosophy: “There’s no foreign influence – Ilonggo cuisine is simple,” he said.

But of course. We can eat talaba by using flattened six-inch nails, for goodness’s sake. Despite that, he says, “There’s more than just batchoy, pancit molo or kadyos, baboy, and langka (in Ilonggo cuisine). The Visayan region is mainly the food haven of the Philippines. Iloilo, Roxas, Aklan, Bacolod – the similarities of our cuisine – it’s there.”

Food as an expression of cultural identity. This concept might have been already beaten to death by many travel and lifestyle shows, but it’s an everyday reality here in Iloilo. Never have we looked forward to being “schooled” on cooking than the conversation I had with him for this story.

You know what? Why don’t we just let the man speak for himself?

On Growing up, and Loving, Cooking

“At (our) home, you cannot eat if you don’t know how to cook,” Chef Tibong said. “(The family members would) have different schedules, so each one would cook. My influence came from my grandma, Lola Esca, my dad Afrique, Tiya Lourdes, Tiyo Amin, and the guys—they’re the fixtures at home during fiestas, birthdays, and events. So they’re the cooks. Of course, my mom cooks very well too, but it’s more on higher-end (sic) cooking.”

Much like any chef worth his… err, salt (Sorry. The pun was just too hard to pass up), Chef Tibong believes cooking to be a purely creative activity. “I’m an artist. I paint. I draw. I do events. But the passion of cooking is (there). I cook almost everyday” he said.

rafael's cocina del sur entrance
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

As an example, he explained how Ilonggos would have their own spin on a soup dish. “There are other ways of cooking, but the ingredients are the same…. However, when we make soup, we have those endemic ingredients. (This gives) Ilonggo cuisine a distinctive taste.”

Despite his belief in cooking-as-expression, one gets the sense that Chef Tibong is a stickler for tradition. “There are original cuisines, but the thing is, na-fusion na sila. It’s like when you say sinugba; it’s just the salt (that makes it as such). The sinamak (also) makes it edible; the Ilonggo sinamak is really good. When you say sinugba with pork or fish, it’s basically the standard of salt,” he said.

In other words: we haven’t even scratched the surface of Ilonggo cuisine’s full potential yet. Really, just read at what else he has to say below:

“People will realize that there are ingredients that we have not used, but have been used before. (For instance) those alumpira, you can use in your salad,” he explained. “Even those herbs and spices that you can find on the streets. I don’t substitute. If this is the way on how to cook a certain dish, that’s what I’ll follow, to get the exact flavor and the aroma.”

Seriously, if you’re still not sold on this, then we don’t know what else to write here.

On Food and Diaspora

Food reminds people of home. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), for one, keep on rightfully harping about how they miss the cooking in Iloilo (well, aside from their families, of course).

It seems we really are what we eat. It sounds bad, but not when hearing Chef Tibong state it.

“When people eat food, it becomes a part of who they are. They associate food from their childhood, even the ones they do not like. Each meal evokes warm feelings that tie people back to their roots,” he said.

rafael's cocina del sur interior
Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

“We don’t eat this when we’re young,”—we’ll imagine that “this” meant laswa, just because—“but then, you grow up, and you begin to enjoy it– unconsciously, you’ve tasted it, smelled it. But now, for example if you’ve lived in the States for ten years, and when you go home, you basically will call (home and say), “Cook me adobo, kadyos. You don’t long for your house for your room, but for the smell of the food.”

“(It’s) food prepared by our mothers, grandmothers, or nannies become (it’s) the comfort we seek when we’ve felt stressed or just have left the country for work,” he continued.

Guess we’ll never look at laswa the same way ever again.

On Today’s Ilonggo Chefs and Honoring Tradition

Iloilo is known for its simple, savory treats. A couple of restaurants open each year, with each new one allowing chefs to get more innovative with their cooking. As a sign of the times, many establishments here even make sure to use organic and sustainable ingredients.

Chef Tibong may have noted the trend, but he is aware that chefs today see cooking as an everyday learning experience. He believes having a solid sense of heritage would help them develop their styles.

When asked about how today’s Ilonggo culinary community is faring, Chef Tibong said, “If you want your students to be very good, instil to them their local roots, how they cook their own food, and have them create an international meal from their local goods. Teach them first their heritage, where they came from. (Encourage them to) use our local ingredients, but for international standards.”

It’s why he says that despite having seen and eaten in different parts of the world, Ilonggo food becomes a thing of the past that one wants to go back to. If anything, this is a good argument for why lutong bahay-style cuisine is still so popular everywhere in the country.

“Based on my travels, I realized that the food at home is there,” he said. “It’s the flavor you long for.”

So, should it even come as a surprise that he even touted today’s karinderyas of doing a good job retaining traditional Ilonggo cuisine in? After all, he did say Ilonggo cuisine was simple.

“We’ve preserved Ilonggo cuisine not because of me, (and) not because of books, but because of the everyday cooking of our parents, yaya, grandma. Everyday cooking is there, and it is being preserved (in) our homes.”

Now, will this mean that an increased awareness of our cooking styles would lead to a more intense appreciation for our history?

Well, only our tummies can tell for the meantime. And we’re already getting hungry.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.

Glory Moralidad founded Bata Ako Ph, which aims to bring back the lost art of storytelling to children. She has also been nominated and awarded for her work on various children's books.