Food · Travel

Destination: Food

T'boli heklafak and rice wrapped by a native leaf

Soccsksargen tourism pushes food tours in the region
story by Angelo Garcia

Mindanao, known as the Food Basket of the Philippines, is a major source of fresh produce and livestock of the country. Because of its fertile ground and location, it’s the perfect place to grow some of the most in-demand food items in the world, including coffee and chocolate. Its seas are also rich with premium seafood like tuna that are exported around the world.

Lake Sebu, South Cotabato
Lake Sebu, South Cotabato

Region 12, which is composed of the provinces of South Cotabato, Cotabato., Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani  (Soccsksargen or SOX), and the city of General Santos, is one of the top food producers in the Philippines. According to Department of Tourism (DOT) Region XII regional director Nelly Nita Dillera, there is a reason why Mindanao is the country’s food basket and Region XII’s contribution is a solid proof.

“We are no. 1 in Mindanao for rice production, no. 5 in the country; for corn, no. 1 in Mindanao, no. 2 in the country; for coffee, no. 1 in the Philippines. We also export meat like “pork in box,” which is exported to United Arab Emirates (UAE). Then, there’s organic rice, which is exported to UAE, Hong Kong, United States, Netherlands, and Switzerland. But two of our top exports are canned tuna and canned pineapple,” she says.

Pineapple is one of Region 12's top exports because of the huge plantations of Dole Philippines
Pineapple is one of Region 12’s top exports because of the huge plantations of Dole Philippines

Dillera saw the potential of the food industry as a major player in the Philippines. After the recently concluded Flavors of SOX, the region showcased several tour packages of the region that highlights the eats instead of the usual sights. The Flavors of SOX celebration last month was the last leg of the Flavors of the Philippines, a program of DOT as part of its Philippine Food Month campaign.

Greenleaf Hotel's tuna sashimi
Greenleaf Hotel’s tuna sashimi
Sarangani Highlands Garden tuna lechon
Sarangani Highlands Garden tuna lechon
Tbolis-heklafak-or-roasted-native-chicken
Tbolis-heklafak-or-roasted-native-chicken

The special packages include: the Gensan Tuna Food Tour, which explores the best product of the city through different offerings of several restaurants and hotels; Blaan Traditional Food Tour, a tour that immerses guests in the tradition and food of the Blaan Tribe; South Valley Food Tour, the tour that is all about the fresh fruits, which includes the abundant pineapple, that grows in the foothils of Mt. Matutum that covers Gensan and Koronadal City; Lake Sebu Culinary Experience, a territory of the T’boli tribe which is famous for its tilapia cuisine; T’boli Food Adventure highlights the traditional cuisine of rthe tribe; Halal Goodness that is all about the halal delicacies of Cotabato City and nearby areas; and the Gensan Agri Tour, which explores the bounty of the country’s southernmost city.

The potential with food tours is indeed there because tourists also visit the region for the food. Of the 3.1 million tourists the region accounted last year, foreigners mostly visit because of business for tuna or pineapple (tuna is mainly exported to Japan and US, while pineapple all over the world). And the other tourists want to experience the traditions and culture of the indigenous people like T’boli and Blaan.

“Sometimes people visit a place because of the food and the destination is secondary.  Local tourists come back to experience living with the tribe and eating their food,” Dillera shares.

The Blaan Traditional Food Tour lets tourists experience the culture of the Blaan Tribe. Lamlifew (lam-lee-fao) Village, located in Malungon, Sarangani province, welcomes guests to its community of more than 300 families. A producer of corn, organic rice, and cavendish, the tribe is proud of its rich heritage and food. One traditional dish is the llolot anok, a tinola-like chicken dish that cooks native chicken with local herbs inside a bamboo. What’s unique about this dish is the herbs the tribe uses, which are the sangig, a mint-like herb and Blaan sibuyas, a type of chive. Both herbs grow in the mountains and the community just cultivate it in their own backyard.

Blaan's Llolot Anok, native chicken cooked inside a bamboo with special native herbs
Blaan’s Llolot Anok, native chicken cooked inside a bamboo with special native herbs

“We wanted to bring the tribal dishes to the city by exposing chefs and letting them speak with traditional cooks. But it is still a different and valuable experience in the actual community,” Dillera explains.

Safety is not even an issue because the region has been safe for tourists. “People are scared? I don’t think so because the numbers don’t lie. Why did we reach that kind of data (tourist arrivals, 3.1M in 2015)?” she says.

Tribal packages have been very successful with tourists like beautiful Lake Holon, the crater lake of Mt Parker in South Cotabato. A territory of the T’boli tribe, the community operates the tour packages including performing traditional dance and chants on camp grounds and feeding tourists with traditional T’boli fare.

Blaan tribeswoman weaving
Blaan tribeswoman weaving
T'nalak weaver at Lake Sebu
T’nalak weaver at Lake Sebu

“What we want is Soccksargen to be part of the Philippine tourism map. What the national government promotes are the established destinations. I mean these areas can stand on their own already. If they can  graduate these areas and identify the emerging destinations. If this happens a lot of the stakeholders will benefit from it. It’s not just the sights, but the food and resources we are proud of. We have so much,” Dillera ends.

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