Kumbira 2013 Heritage Feature: Culinary Adventures in the Land of White Water

Aug 10, 2013


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After earning a well-deserved reputation as the Adventure Sports Capital of the Philippines, Cagayan de Oro looks to embellish that well-earned sobriquet as a culinary destination that can stand on its own merits and reputation.


After an exhilarating day of white water rafting, zip lining and trail riding on horseback, famished adventurers have found to their delight there’s more to this “City of Golden Friendship” than adventure sports.


Like its rapids and ziplines, Cagayan de Oro’s food trips offers a plethora of sensations for the picky gourmet or just plain hungry: Havelano Square (the area framed by Hayes-Velez-Abejuela and Capistrano streets) near Plaza Divisoria; the Rosario Arcade of Limketkai Center; the Uptown strip across Pueblo de Oro and Xavier Estates; and for those who don’t mind mixing with the hoi polloi, the food sections (known locally as pa-initan) in the Cogon and Carmen public markets.


They say the culinary heritage of a particular locality starts with home cooking, and this is certainly one department where Cagayan de Oro would not be found wanting. Family specialties like the keseo (kesong puti) and the Carabao’s  milk ice cream of Mitos Ortigas are yet to be found in the commercial mainstream but others which have their origins in family businesses such as the “VIP” siopao and fresh corned beef of the Canoy family (which originally started as part of the VIP Hotel’s menu) are now produced regularly by spin-off businesses such as the Best Bake shop.


History relived in the renovated Casa Real of VIP Hotel.


In the city’s early days, there were not many specialty bake shops like Gloria Dychauco’s Pots’n’Pans, the Robillos’ family Rosita’s Bakeshop, Helen Cichon’s Merrymaid or Carol Abriña’s self-named snack bar and bake shop. What the locals did whenever they hosted a party or celebrated a milestone was order specialties from various families like Cuala Tablan’s moist chocolate cake which you had to order personally from her residence in Mabini-Burgos street.


Roadside Cafe (photo courtesy of Monching Cruz).


Of course you could also save yourself the trouble of having to hosting the event in your home by arranging it to be held in a local hotel or restaurant but even then that was considered very expensive and only for the elite.  Favored venues for this purpose included the VIP Hotel’s venerable Embassy Hall or the smaller but definitely more classy Comedor Real in the top floor (now renamed Casa Real).


For ordinary days when its was just impossible to cook lunch or dinner at home for one reason or another, residents had their choice of either pansit guisado or sari-sari from Bagong Lipunan Kitchenette, King’sor Yee’s Restaurant, both of which continue to do thriving business in this niche in the present day of fast-food and fine dining establishments.


The night life in the sleepy town of Cagayan de Oro in those days was limited to folk houses such as the Canoy’s Shakey’s Pizza at Yacapin-Pabayo streets which was later joined by the small but often packed Bahia Jazz Bar, or live band music from Bobby Rojas’ Thrives Music Lounge in Kauswagan facing Kong Hua school or the Payag in Gusa. There were exactly three discos: One Up! in Kalambagohan-Capistrano,Salamin in the posh Mindanao Hotel in Corrales-Chaves streets and Channel One in the rather distant Caprice-by-the-Sea restaurant in Gusa.


Carding Tabora, Remy Cruz, Dionisio Cañete, Pepito Alvarez and Faeling Floirendo at the Plaza Lunch circa 1965. Plaza Lunch operated from 1965-1967 along Don A. Velez St., in the old building next to Sabal Hospital. (photo courtesy of Monching Cruz)


Cebuano-speaking peoples are more often than not inclined to sinugba or ihaw-ihaw during those days although not on the scale they do now. Payag in Gusa and Amakan along Pabayo street were two of the more upscale places where one could get a decent barbecue but the more budget conscious went to Chicken a la carte along Toribio Chaves street behind the Philippine National Bank. Its trade name was eventually adopted as a generic term for barbecue carts by the ever-humorous Kagay-anons.


For Magnolia ice cream or frozen delights (there was no other brand before), one went to either Ice Cream Palace along Capistrano street next to the now defunct Roket movie theatre or Tivoli in Plaza Divisoria. Somewhat later, there was also a short-lived Coney Island stall opposite Kairo theatre which targeted but failed to lure the theatre crowd.


Before the fast-food wave hit the shores of Cagayan de Oro, local entrepreneurs strove mightily to fill the gap. Notable among these pioneers is the couple Elpie and Rose Paras whose Sesame Sandwich Shop (its Big Bird Burger was a worthy counterpart of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder), Sugbahan Central and Tia Nanang’s Filipino Restaurant were local institutions in their day. His brother Jess and wife Nena also set up Paolo’s Ristorante, the city’s first Italian Restaurant, initially at the Casa del Chino Igua and later at a nearby location, now occupied by sister Angel and her Gazebo Café.


Things started picking up in the mid-90s when a new breed of entrepreneurs like the yuppies behind Bigby’s Café & Restaurant and X-Site Live Music Venue got together and organized themselves to promote Havelano Square (the area enclosed by Hayes-Velez-Abejuela and Capistrano streets) as the new “in-place” to be. These young professionals expanded the traditional clientele of restaurants and cafes by making them affordable even to university students from nearby Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan and attractive enough for the young employees and professionals who were starting out with their families.


When the new malls started coming in, they brought to fore the fast-food revolution, with McDonald’ssetting up its first outlet ever in Mindanao at the upscale Limketkai Center. These branded food chains offered stiff competition to the locals, who did not take it sitting down but struck back with their own new or upgraded creations such as Elpie Paras’ P.Joe’s Diner (an American-themed restaurant), Consuelo’s Steakhouse (the cowboy-inspired beef specialty restaurant of the Aberasturi’s), Kagay-anon Restaurant(native Cagayanon fine dining), Countryside Steakhouse and Green Haven vegetarian resto of the Limketkais. Most of these latter establishments were strategically co-located at the Rosario Arcade, now renamed Rosario Strip of Limketkai Center, a food and entertainment center of 17 establishments which aimed to give locals and their visitors a complete dining and entertainment experience in one location.


Fast-growing real estate projects in what has since been recognized as Cagayan de Oro’s “Uptown” also set up their own “food strips”, notably Xavier Square in Xavier Estates and Pueblo de Oro’s “Masterson Mile” anchored by SM Cagayan de Oro just across the street. With these developments came another new wave of food and entertainment concepts such as “real” international cuisine introduced by Turquoise Turkish Restaurant, Karachi Restaurant, Golden Ajirang Korean Restaurant, Kamogawa and Ramen-Tei Japanese Restaurants; and the family KTV in tandem with the ubiquitous “sugbahan”.


With the family culinary tradition established by the old families of the city in tandem with the new breed of yuppie entrepreneurs and professional chefs, the City of Golden Friendship appears to have the right combination of ingredients to ensure its place in Filipino culinary heritage.


However, the Cagayan de Oro Hotels and Restaurant Association (COHARA) is taking one step further to ensure that heritage remains true to its roots and the latest developments are tucked into the fold with the establishment of Kumbira! probably the first but definitely biggest culinary show outside Metro Manila.


Now in its 17th year, Kumbira’s biggest followers are the budding chefs and entrepreneurs of Mindanao’s academe for which it has served as a source of inspiration for the student and professionals of the industry alike. With COHARA committed to the continued upgrading and professionalization of the city’s culinary industry, the Kagay-anons can rest easy: the future of their culinary legacy is assured of being passed on in the way it was meant to be to the next generation.


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