A short ferry ride from bustling Zamboanga City is Isabela de Basilan. While it is a smaller, quieter city, it is nonetheless blessed with natural wonders and a rich and diverse culture.
Though part of the island of Basilan, the city is administratively under Region IX-Zamboanga Peninsula (ZamPen).
Several indigenous communities call it home. One of which is the Sama Banguingui, an ethno-linguistic group native to the Balanguingui Islands but is also dispersed throughout the Greater Sulu Archipelago. Some have settled in the southern and western coastal regions of the Peninsula.
Most of them build their houses on stilts over shallow waters and rely on the bounty of the sea for their livelihood.
In 2019, the local government of Isabela de Basilan tapped some of them to be part of its “Sun, Sand, and Sea Experience” to boost tourism.
The ladies of Marang-Marang Women’s Association
One of the tourism initiatives of the LGU is Marang-Marang Floating Cottage. The twin cottages are located within a protected area of thick mangroves, about a 20-minute boat ride from Port Isabela.
Legend has it that the name of the island derives from two marang trees that used to be a meeting place among the locals.
The ones managing the cottages are the ladies from the Marang-Marang Women’s Association. Mayra Abbas, the group’s president, recalls that it was almost three years ago when they were tapped by the LGU to be a part of the tourism circuit.
For their efforts, the group was honored during the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) ZamPen Tourism Awards in 2021. They were recognized for their contribution to the city’s “Sun, Sand, and Sea Experience,” specifically in culinary tourism.
Abbas shares that before they became tourism workers, the group would occasionally cook for visitors from government agencies upon the request of the LGU.
They initially thought that there was nothing special about their food. “It was only recently when we realized that the food that we serve can be for tourists. That our simple recipes will be appreciated by others,” the mother of three says.
A medley of Sama and Tausug cuisine
The highlight of every visit to Marang-Marang Cottage is the Sama and Tausug spread prepared by Abbas and her team. The feast is a medley of crabs, shrimp, shells, squid, fish, fruits, and sweets.
Its location near the Sulu Sea and within a lush mangrove park means you are in for a fresh seafood feast.
Sama and Tausug cuisines are influenced by the different indigenous communities in the Sulu Archipelago. The proximity of the Malay peninsula with its various spices has also exerted an influence on these two culinary traditions.
This convergence of cultures makes Sama and Tausug food unique, one you cannot find anywhere else in the country.
Part of their tradition is cooking with siyunug lahing or burnt coconut and different spices, some from neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
Among the dishes that the Marang-Marang women serve, the most eye-catching is the Oko-oko. This Sama dish is rice cooked in tehe-tehe or sea urchin broth. Preparing it requires skill and patience.
Before stuffing the tehe-tehe with rice, the spines are removed using a rock. The meat is then set aside and the inside of the shell cleaned. Rice is sautéed with the tehe-tehe meat and spices then placed inside the shell. Before boiling, the opening is sealed with a leaf, usually coconut or pandan.
The proper way of eating Oko-oko is cracking it open like a hard-boiled egg.
Another distinct dish is a fish cake called Utak-utak. They usually use yellowfin or mackerel tuna which is simmered, shredded, and mixed with coconut, onions, garlic, black pepper, and turmeric.
The mixture is then coated with a flour-and-egg batter, formed into patties, then deep-fried until golden brown.
There is Chupa Kulo, snails in a thick broth made from squash and coconut milk. The snails are not deshelled upon cooking so eating the meat requires sucking it out, hence, the name which in Chavacano means “to suck the bottom.”
They also serve Junay, a rice dish wrapped in banana leaves with burnt coconut meat and spices, and Baked Imbao or mangrove clams topped with garlic and grated cheese. The clams are harvested fresh from the mangroves and have a natural sweetness.
For dessert, they have Putli Mandi or steamed rice cakes with mangoes and Panyalam (also Panyam) or rice pancakes. Made of coconut, muscovado, and rice powder, it is usually served as an offering to deities.
The Sama Banguigui believe that noise may ruin the Panyalam’s flavor so preparing and cooking it have to be done in silence. Complimenting its taste and form should also be avoided.
Similarly, the first batch must not be eaten, instead, it has to be offered to the spirits.
Panyalam is commonly eaten during special occasions and religious holidays. It is also given as a peace offering for people or spirits that are believed to have been offended by the giver.
Abbas says that no meal is complete without hard-boiled eggs and kiyuning or yellow rice. The rice gets its color from coconut oil and turmeric.
The Sama Banguingui usually accompany their meals with kahawa sūg or Sulu coffee, a single-origin varietal grown by the Tausug.
Adding to the festive vibe are the colorful woven placemats, tutup or food covers, and ambung or containers. They are made using pandan, nipa, or buri leaves. Tutup and ambung are used to keep the food warm and insects at bay.
A more sustainable livelihood
More than the experience of feasting on authentic Sama and Tausug cuisine, a visit to Marang-Marang Floating Cottage helps sustain the livelihood of the local Sama Banguingui community.
Most of the ingredients are sourced locally. The seafood, for example, are bought from the association ladies’ husbands who are mostly fisherfolk.
“The food that we serve are mostly from the mangroves. Our men also derive their livelihood from here. They catch shrimp at night. They also harvest clams,” shares Abbas.
Even the langka or jackfruit that they use are harvested by the men in the community.
Abbas shares that fishing is dependent on the weather. “If the weather is bad, they would not be able to catch anything. They cannot catch shrimp if the waters are murky. They need the waters to be clear for them to see the shrimp’s red eyes. The men sleep during the day and work at night,” Abbas explains.
Through their work as tourism workers, the women are able to help augment their household finances especially on bad weather days when the catch is not plentiful. Some of them also sell fish and seafood in the market every Sunday.
Claudio M. Ramos, tourism officer of Isabela de Basilan, shares that the association has existed even before they tapped the members to be part of the tourism circuit. But the LGU’s support helped the women improve on a more holistic level.
“Like Mayra before,” he adds, “you cannot even pull her aside and talk to her. She almost fainted when she was first interviewed. She wanted me to stay beside her. But look at her now, she is already talkative and more confident.”
It is a matter of support from the LGU, says Ramos, to let the women feel that what they are doing has value and meaning. “I saw how these women improved from self-presentation to cooking,” he says.
“I am so proud of these ladies. We still have so many plans. We will be adding to the cottages next year. We really pushed for this with the LGU.” They plan to put up one big cottage for events and an additional two small cottages.
They are also pushing for the renovation of the two existing ones. The current cottages were built through the efforts of the former barangay captain. As for the Marang-Marang Women’s Association, Abbas and the ladies have requested for their own place where they can prepare their dishes as well as display and sell their products for additional income.
Access to Isabela de Basilan is usually through Zamboanga City. From there, a 1 hour and 45 minute ferry ride will take you to Isabela de Basilan.
The fare ranges from Php20 (student and senior citizen’s discounted fare on some conventional ferries) to P70 (first-class w/ aircon). Visitors can also take a “Fast Craft” which only takes about 45 minutes.
Abbas and Ramos suggest coordinating with Isabela de Basilan’s Tourism Office for bookings. A day at Marang-Marang Cottage costs Php500/head, inclusive of the mangrove tour but not including the boat ride from James Strong Boulevard.
Abbas and her team are coordinating with the Tourism Office for a consolidated tour package.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operators in Zamboanga City and Isabela de Basilan:
(062) 991-1174 / 0917-722-6410; firstname.lastname@example.org
(062) 990-2100; email@example.com
All tourist destinations in Isabela de Basilan have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.