If a single flavor profile could summarize Maranao food, it would be that of palapa. Used to enhance taste, it’s a fundamental component of Maranao cooking. The main ingredient of palapa is sakurab — an herb similar to scallions — and variants include one that’s sautéed in oil. Others incorporate ingredients such as roasted coconut and shredded smoked tuna to achieve additional layers of flavor.
“The taste for hotness is also found among the [Maranaos], who pound sili together with garlic, ginger and wild onions into palapa, a relish used to give spark and life to almost any fish or vegetable dish,” wrote the late food historian Doreen Fernandez in Tikim, a collection of food essays.
In its most modest form, palapa is made from sakurab, chili, ginger and salt; it may or may not have grated coconut mixed in, and the coconut itself may or may not be toasted. The first one I encountered years ago was the opposite of demure — it was pounded together with bakas, or smoked tuna, before being sautéed. The resulting mix was hot, fresh and glistening.
Ever since that first bite, palapa has been an indulgence I’ve never been able to get enough of. It’s a spice mix and a base flavoring for a sauté, chutney, sauce and relish all in one. It comes in myriad forms and preparations, the range of which echoes the Maranao themselves: varied and diverse, but recognizably similar.
While it’s possible to buy palapa these days, it’s more common to make your own. But, like adobo for the rest of the Philippines, there are various kinds, for different purposes, and, of course, everyone has their own secret recipe.
Here’s how to make your own jar at home.
What you need
- 1kg sakurab, cleaned by removing tops and exposing white bulbs
- 100g siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili)
- 150g ginger, peeled
- 15g rock salt
Using a large mortar and pestle, grind sakurab, sili, ginger and onion into a paste. Stir or pound in other ingredients as desired.