Photo by Yen de Felipe

Matambok: An Ilonggo’s Short Guide to Eating Talaba

By Lerie Tan

Iloilo is home to various culinary delights. And if you are an Ilonggo who might have been gone from the City of Love for a few months or years, you will almost always find yourself craving for the dishes that you have grown up eating. And one of these Ilonggo eats is the talaba.

Ilonggos living in Manila, for example, lament the fact that eating talaba there is a luxury. A serve of oysters in Manila can cost you anywhere between 150 to 250 pesos for a few pieces. This local grub, on the other hand, costs only 30 to 65 pesos in Iloilo.

It is no wonder why this seafood is sought after by tourists and locals alike in the City of Love. And it is also no surprise that one can easily spot a cozy talabahan restaurant or an individual seller holding a “Talaba for Sale” sign in the streets of Iloilo.

But how much do Ilonggos know about this sumptuous gift from the sea and its succulent goodness?

Talaba is love, talaba is life – in Western Visayas

Sibugay Province in Zamboanga is called the Talaba Capital of the Philippines, but did you know that the highest oyster producing province is Western Visayas? According to a study by the Philippine Statistics Authority, Region VI has consistently produced the largest volume of oysters in 2013, 2014, and 2015 with Capiz, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, and Aklan as frontrunners in supplying 70% of talaba production in the country.

Yuck or yum?

The taste of oysters depends on their environment. Oysters grown in saltier waters take in more salts in their meat and, thus, have a more savory flavor. Oysters grown in murky waters, on the other hand, have lingering, mud-like tastes. Meanwhile, those grown in less salty areas are more likely to taste bland.

Matambok: An Ilonggo’s Short Guide to Eating Talaba - Project Iloilo
Photo by Yen de Felipe

This shelled seafood feeds by filtering the water around them. It takes in plankton (microscopic plants and animals) and bacteria and viruses. Hence, oysters for consumption should be grown in clean waters distant from residential areas.

And those juicy fat oysters? Those are the ones that are ready to release their eggs and sperm. So if you are fond of slurping pregnant oysters with their fatty, milky, savory goodness out of its shell, take time to thank all the future baby oysters you are eating for the gastronomic feast. And nutritious too, since it is packed with protein, vitamins, and minerals.

The hills have eyes and the oysters have feet

It may seem like another story straight from Disney but, yes, an oyster develops a foot while it is young.

Most people think that oysters simply grow out of empty oyster shells. Oysters actually produce eggs and sperm that they release into the water to fertilize. They are free-swimming during the earlier stage of their life cycle. Twenty days after hatching, the larvae develop a foot and start to crawl. At this point, they search for hard objects they can attach to then. Once they do, they lose their ability swim or crawl. This is the stage of an oyster’s development when the empty talaba shells come in handy.

The talaba usually grows in areas where freshwater meets seawater. Salinity and temperature fluctuations are very common in these places. Oysters can withstand strong salinity and temperature changes. They can also survive for several days without water. Talk about resilient creatures.

The oysters that we love in Iloilo may grow feet, but they do not grow pearls. There are different types of oysters, and the ones we eat are different from the ones that make pearls. Otherwise, talaba prices will skyrocket, and we Ilonggos do not want that, do we?

The ginseng of the sea?

For centuries, oysters have been marketed as aphrodisiacs or food that can increase libido. Oysters have zinc, a mineral that can aid in the production of testosterone. However, not enough studies have been conducted on this aspect. There is no scientific proof that oysters can stimulate the drive for sex. But who needs an aphrodisiac if eating talaba is a gastronomic orgasm upon itself, right?

How Ilonggos enjoy their oysters

Let us walk through how we usually eat our steamed talaba.

First, we arm ourselves with our weapon of choice. Abroad, oysters are usually served with the top shell removed and sitting on top of ice shaves. In Iloilo, we prefer to open our own oysters. Sure, these shells were already cracked open a little, but talaba in Iloilo (and in the Philippines, in general) is almost usually served with shells on. If it’s a classy restaurant, the servers would provide us with shucking knives. If it’s a talabahan (oyster house) by the beach, they give us 6-inch nails with the pointed ends flattened. Some of us don’t even know what a shucking knife is, but we are all too familiar with that flattened nail. Nowadays, most of the talaba served on Ilonggo tables are already cracked open in a way that you can just use your bare hands to fully remove the top shell.

Matambok: An Ilonggo’s Short Guide to Eating Talaba - Project Iloilo
Photo by Joseph Batcagan

Opening these mollusks is a bit of an adventure since we will never know at first if it is maniwang or matambok nga talaba. Our barkada or family would sometimes even compete on who could open the meatiest, juiciest piece. Then there is always that one oyster that’s so difficult to open it gets us all worked up and even more excited (or sometimes exasperated!)

Once the hinges crack, the meat is separated from the shell and soaked in one’s favorite mixture. It is common practice in the Philippines to soak steamed oysters in vinegar before eating them. This is not only because they taste better this way; In other countries, people can eat oysters raw and without any accoutrements because it is safer to consume over than the ones we are producing here in the country. Oysters are soaked in vinegar to kill off any bacteria that survived steaming or grilling.

Some people dip the talaba in calamansi juice and soy sauce but the most popular way in Iloilo is soaking it in “sinamak” or spicy vinegar. The result is a burst of milky, savory, spicy and tangy burst of flavors in the mouth. Then, we clean our palate with a nice swig of beer or Mountain Dew, and prepare for the next bite.

Ilonggos indeed have a gastronomic love affair with this local grub. And if you are a certified oyster lover, the abundance of this popular shelled seafood in our locality is only one of the many reasons why you need to stay in the City of Love.

Think Iloilo, think talaba.

Lerie Tan spent the last three years studying oysters. Today, she manages Handum Iloilo, a bespoke woodcrafting company, while seeking out new hobbies.