Authentic Filipino eats on Silversea culinary cruise

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A table setting at a Romblon country house where the specialty is a prawn and coconut dish wrapped in banana leaves.
A table setting at a Romblon country house where the specialty is a prawn and coconut dish wrapped in banana leaves. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

Like most North Americans, I imagine, I had never heard of Romblon Island in the Philippines, so I had very few expectations about the place, good or bad, when I arrived there on the Silversea Cruises' Silver Muse in March.

We were there as a stop on a culinary cruise through some of the islands of Southeast Asia, including Bali and Borneo. Romblon was our last stop before Manila, Philippines, where the cruise ended.

As it turned out, Romblon is a very picturesque island with long, white sandy beaches and beautiful bays. As it also turned out, we weren't going to frolic at the beach. We were there as part of the new Sea and Land Taste (SALT) program under development by Silversea, and we were going to the countryside to sample a local dish that isn't made anywhere else in the Philippines.

Our guide, SALT director Adam Sachs, had ferreted out this unusual experience as an example of how the program would provide local, authentic, off-the-beaten-path culinary experiences.

A Filipino “tricycle” pays homage to New York taxicabs and the New York subway system.
A Filipino “tricycle” pays homage to New York taxicabs and the New York subway system. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

In this case, we went well off the beaten path.

And getting there was half the fun. After disembarking, our group boarded a fleet of Filipino "tricycles," an indigenous form of auto rickshaw that features a covered, two-person sidecar welded to a frame attached to a motorcycle.

Off we went in a caravan of open-air tricycles, through Romblon and along a highway into the countryside. Outside of a few SUVs and trucks, motorcycles and scooters are about the only form of motorized transport in Romblon.

The drive took us past scenic views of beaches, and the road was lined with banana and papaya trees and even some wild pineapple. Periodically, the view would open up onto rice paddies.

The drivers seemed to be having a great time transporting us. Ours paused for gas in a pit stop that took less than a minute. The ride, while not silky smooth, was not bad for a country where the per capita income is a fraction that of the U.S.

Our journey took us off the highway onto a bumpy, single-lane dirt road. Chickens flew out of our way as the caravan roared through. Several miles into the jungle, we stopped at a compound of thatch-covered buildings and dismounted.

A caravan of “tricycles” along a road in Romblon.
A caravan of “tricycles” along a road in Romblon. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

We had come to taste the local specialty, sarsa na uyang, and to see firsthand how it is made.

The key ingredient is the local freshwater river prawn, an inky crawfish that is most easily caught in the dark of night. There was a big woven basket full of them on the preparation table, and when the lid came off, they immediately tried to escape.

But their fate was to be tossed in an old hand-cranked grinder with freshly scraped coconut, chili peppers, garlic, ginger and shallots and turned into a paste, which was then parceled out into sections of cut banana leaf.

The parcels were set in a clay pot atop a brazier fired by coconut-husk charcoal. The goods, when finished, would be taken down the dirt road for distribution as street food in Romblon.

It was as authentic as it gets, a true glimpse of how Filipino food gets prepared from local ingredients at one of the little-known but attractive Asian cruise spots waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by U.S. cruisers.

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