By Jodelen O. Ortiz
When I was in Singapore an associate asked me: “What food in the Philippines do you consider very unique that only the bold and daring could eat?” My instant reply: Tamilok, a favorite delicacy in Palawan province.
Tamilok is a mangrove worm that is not exactly a worm. Although it looks like one, it is actually a mangrove-boring mollusk. Palawan’s natural resources boosts of large mangrove areas, especially on the northern part covering municipalities of Taytay, El Nido, Busuanga, Culion, Coron and Linapacan. These are the towns that are also frequently visited by tourists of different nationalities, according to statistics.
Tamilok is a worm-like mollusk best served kinilaw
The locals who live nearby these mangrove areas have found a livelihood in collecting tamilok and selling them in wet markets and even in the streets to tourist passersby. Even in Sitio Sabang where the Underground River is located, a child carrying a pale of live tamilok is a common sight.
Of course, there are many other more famous delicacies from snakes, locusts, bats and frogs that are very well known especially in some Philippine provinces. All of them however are frequently cooked before they are served. Snakes being aphrodisiacs are a sold-out in the interior towns of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. The Chinese have in fact found a good business in them, need I say more?
As with locusts, there was a time in the 90’s when they have infested the mountainous areas in Visayas and the residents waged an all-out war against the pests. After the successful Operation Kontra Apan, households had the pests on their tables – for meal – what a revenge. Bats when roasted tastes like chicken that even a pre-schooler has the stomach to eat them. Some variety of frogs are cooked and served in different ways even in restaurants.
The popularity of these food from snakes, locusts, bats and frogs in all of Asia have already disqualified them from being distinctly Pinoy.
Tamilok, on the other hand, is becoming one of the tourism identities of places like Agusan del Norte, Bohol and most especially Palawan. The online information about Tamilok usually identify it to the Philippine’s Last Frontier, the paradise-like Palawan.
Kinabuch, a more famous restaurant in Puerto Princesa City serves Tamilok for appetizer or “pulutan”. They are served raw after their insides are removed and cleaned. You may choose between vinegar or calamansi juice for perfect dips. If I were you however, I will ask for native coconut vinegar (the one from “tuba”), this usually tastes better with tamilok than the commercial vinegars.
If eaten at somebody else’s house try experimenting on creating new dips from a combination of the following: pepper, small mango cubes, tomato cubes, cubed onions, and cucumber. The chef of Al Fresco Culture Café and Restaurant recommends native coconut vinegar, small mango cubes and some cubes of onions.
To newbies, a bowl full of tamilok is not a, uhmm, comfortable sight. To describe it aptly tamilok is fat, slimy and grayish white but please, don’t judge it by its appearance. It makes for great “pulutan” dish especially with the local drink “tuba”. Unfortunately, there is no tuba sold in Kinabuch. If you stumble upon a group in drinking session in the rural areas of Palawan and you get invited you might just be lucky to have both the best pulutan and the best drink that the locals are proud of: tamilok and tuba.
When asked why they like eating tamilok, most enthusiasts say that it tastes better than oyster (talaba) and any other pulutan while some even answer that it could taste like cheese when served fresh.
The secret to making the experience authentically Palawan is to put the fork aside, then pick and dip the tamilok by hand. Chances are, with just one bowl of tamilok, you might not know how many bottles you will be able to finish. I had an officemate before who liked Kinabuchs as his watering hole because of tamilok, not to mention that he was really a hard drinker. One fact that is revealed about tamilok from the many testimonials of tamilok-lovers: is that drinking becomes more engaging with tamilok as pulutan.
Despite all the praises the tamilok gets, I advise that you watch out for the burps that is not so nice. Otherwise, when you are ready for the experience of a lifetime, this is a food for the brave, the bold, the daring YOU.
While there is an obvious upward trend on the tourism entry to the Province of Palawan, the different tourism agencies in the Province must also set efforts on making projects and programs to promote tamilok as a Palawan delicacy trademark. Also, it would probably have a good impact to tourism if the members of the food industry especially in Puerto Princesa will be more creative in serving different dishes from tamilok, other than the traditional “kinilaw” style.
Similar-looking creatures known as gooseneck barnacles, are usually steamed to reduce the salty taste, with the rough skin removed from the shell and the edible flesh inside stripped and eaten. Although great on their own, some folks like the addition of a garlic butter dip or like to add gooseneck barnacles to soups and chowders.
For a while some people thought tamilok is gooseneck barnacle, but the gooseneck barnacles are filter-feeding crustaceans that live attached to hard surfaces of rocks and flotsam in the ocean intertidal zone. The taste is said by some to be similar to crab claws, although the texture is very different, something more akin to snails, soft and chewy, and moist, unlike crab.
Although tamilok and gooseneck barnacles are different, the style of cooking the former could also be applicable to cooking tamilok. We need some sort of variation in serving tamilok and making it a bestseller in the menu, so that even those who do not like its raw taste and appearance can still savor its deliciousness.
For the adventurous, this food could probably be considered an excellent if not ultimate test of trying out new stuff. If you have a “problematic” stomach, never mind. Just enjoy the amusing and amazing stories of people who have tasted the tamilok.
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