Tawi-Tawi, a tourism diamond in the rough
Last Nov. 6, I had the honor and privilege of going to Sibutu in Tawi-Tawi to give the keynote address at the unveiling of the historical landmark for the burial site of Sheik Makhdum with Dr. Emannuel Calairo of the National Historical Commission and Jeremy Barns of the National Museum. We were warmly welcomed by Sibutu Mayor Nurfita Ahajah and Vice Mayor Haji Alshefa Pajiji, along with Vice Gov. Al Syed Sali and former Vice Gov. Michael Ahaja.
The next day, Nov. 7, Sheik Makhdum Day in Mindanao, I accompanied Budget Secretary Amenah Pangandaman, who is a Maranao. She was guest of honor and gave the keynote address at the unveiling of the historical marker for the Sheik Karimol Makhdum Mosque in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi. Here we were welcomed by Simunul Mayor Wasilah Abdurahman.
It was a wonderful experience seeing beautiful Tawi- Tawi. First of all, I want to share with all of you that Tawi-Tawi is a peaceful province. Capt. Christopher Auro of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), who welcomed and ensured our security, shared with us that here, the coordination among the Philippine National Police, the Navy and the PCG is very smooth, hence ensuring peace and order in the area.
The challenge is having to ride a boat from island to island. You literally have no choice but to go island hopping!
If you do go, you will be met not only by smiles and the warmth of the people, but also by the breathtaking scenery of the clear waters meeting the blue skies … and the incredible food!
Tawi-Tawi is seafood heaven!
Perhaps we had great timing as it was Sheik Makhdum Day, their fiesta for the missionary who brought Islam to the Philippines, so we had a very festive spread on both days. This included the most ginormous lobsters—they were huge and fat! We also had equally enormous lapu-lapu (grouper) fish.
I also loved their sea mantis. In Manila we know this as alupihang dagat. This looks like a mix between a lobster and a shrimp but stretched out. This can be steamed or stir-fried with garlic and butter. But like lobster, you make a dive for its soft and tender white meat.
We also had slipper lobster. Imagine if the lobster was just all tail; that’s what this is like. I love it because it’s easy to eat. And the meat is sweet! I first tried this through our good friend Digs—may he rest in peace—who used to bring this to Manila.
Then there is also sea urchin. At the home of Mayor Wasilah, they had a unique way of cooking uni. We are familiar with fresh uni as served in Japanese restaurants. Here they have a version of it that is fried! It is chewy, not slimy!
I also love their delicacy called oko-oko. This is rice cooked inside a whole sea urchin shell! This is a Bajao delicacy. Although we know sea urchins to be covered in spines similar to those of a porcupine, the sea urchin they use for this delicacy, called the tehe tehe, already has its spines scraped off and the entrails removed through a small hole at the bottom. Uncooked rice and spices are then inserted into the sea urchin ball through the hole, then sealed with pandan or coconut leaves and boiled. To enjoy this, you then crack the shell open and—voila!—you have the most delicious rice.
For those who don’t eat seafood, there is also tiyula itum, which is a black soup usually with beef. This is a Tausug delicacy that uses pamapa, which is powdered burnt coconut mixed with coconut milk, chili, turmeric, lemon grass, galangal and other spices.
Aside from these, their octopus is also really delicious; also the clams. This is because these are extremely fresh, harvested on the day of your meal!
We were also lucky that it was mangosteen season. I think the members of our team had something like a dozen each in one go! It was so beautifully sweet!
You must consider a trip to Tawi-Tawi. You can fly via Zamboanga and stay in Bongao. The hotels have yet to be developed, so be prepared to rough it a bit. Bring your own towel; don’t expect hot water in the shower, or maybe don’t even expect a shower at all. But on this note, let this be a call for developers to please consider Tawi-Tawi. It has the full potential to be a top Philippine destination for tourism (but make it sustainable)!
In full support of the development of Mindanao and Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as well as the preservation of culture and history, President Marcos has already signed Administrative Order No. 10 entitled Constituting a National Steering Committee for the Commemoration of the 650th Anniversary of Philippine Muslim History and Heritage. So take this as a sign that the time to invest in Mindanao is now! Build resorts; build hotels leading to the 650th Year of Muslim Heritage in the Philippines in 2030. Thank you, Tawi-Tawi! You are so breathtaking and beautiful. We will be back!