Remembering the smells, tastes and textures of Auld Kagay-an

The aroma and distinctive tastes of a city’s culinary treats continue to waft in the memories of its oldtimers, and Resurgent contributor Mike Baños walks us through Cagayan de Oro’s gastronomic spots.—editor)

This was the quiet little town once when most everyone knew everyone in the street, and the same economic power house today which has made it one of the Philippines’ most competitive cities.

In between are mostly memories now of how it was to enjoy a merienda, a tasty pastry and a heritage dish which only a few now know how to make.

In “Memories of the Old Hometown”, her seminal book about old Cagayan de Oro, Gwendolyn Ramos Garcia has devoted a full section to recalling how enjoyable it was to get something to eat in the old town.

Not only were traditional delicacies like the binaki corn cake tasty and affordable, you knew exactly where to go to find them. 

Like the “ fresh milk puto from the Soriano kitchen; the yemas, brazo de mercedes, sans rival and boat tarts of Tita Gely Dayrit; banana candies from the Ellosos; Tita Flor Jaldon’s soft, round coconut candies in colorful cellophane wrappers.

During those days, most food enterprises were home-based and she recounts how she learned to make “keseo” (kesong puti), “budin” (bread pudding),“jalea” (mango jam) and fresh milk ice-cream churned from a hand-cranked ice cream maker called a “garapinera”.

Thus, when there was a birthday in the house or some other special occasion, most everyone knew where to go for their favorite pastries and snacks: Tita Luz Macaranas for her special ensaimadas, fresh lumpia, torta and masa podrida, the Castaños for “empanadas”; Lola Iling Fernandez  for pastillas de leche (made from fresh carabao’s milk) and not the least, manticao and crema de fruta  from the Neri sisters (Tita Perla and Tita Flor). 

Most of the time, resident’s didn’t have to go far either to enjoy a snack. “Almost every family had Tsokolate at breakfast and  dinner made from their own backyard cacao trees.
Another readily available delicacy which is now practically non-existent was the Kayam (Tahitian Chestnut or Polynesian Chestnut) which was usually boiled and tasted like castañas (chestnuts) though it was much bigger.”

But the fruits of one tree in the backyard continues to be relevant even today.

“Casuy is a very versatile nut,” says Eileen E. San Juan, a director of the VIP Hotel and former president of the Cagayan de Oro Hotel & Restaurant Association. “It’ is a local favorite.”
VIP Hotel itself has resurrected the traditional turon with a twist (two in fact) served with dips of coffee flavored syrup and casuy cream sauce. One can still enjoy old Kagay-an’s street food take-offs in VIP Hotel’s Calle lobby cafe such as Camote Q into Camote Triangles, and the ubiquitous Maruya as Crispy Banana with Langka sauce.

Not to forget the ubiquitous pineapple made famous by the Bugo cannery of Del Monte and its plantation in nearby Bukidnon.

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 La Favorita fresh carabao milk ice cream of Mitos Ortigas may have taken their time getting into 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. 

During the eighties, there were not many specialty bake shops: Gloria Dychauco’s Pots’n’Pans, the Robillos’ family Rosita’s Bakeshop, Helen Itchon’s Merrymaid or Carol Abriña’s eponymously-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.

Of course you could also save yourself the trouble of having to host the event in your home by having it in a local hotel or restaurant but even then that was considered very expensive and only for the elite.  

Favored venues included the VIP Hotel’s venerable Embassy Hall (today called the Mandana Hall) or the smaller but definitely more classy Comedor Real (now Casa Real) in the top floor. Two other popular party venues back then were Caprice-by-the-Sea and the Caprice Steakhouse along Velez St. (now the Buffalo Grill).

“But the one and only party venue for many years was the old Casino owned by Tito Ating and Tita Puring Gabor along Divisoria now occupied by the Veterans Bank,” recalls Wendy. “It was also the only source of Magnolia Ice Cream then.” Much later, there was the Tivoli (also owned by Gabor couple), Ice Cream Palace (owned by Raul and Ruben Balan) and a short lived Coney Island kiosk across Roket Theatre.

When it 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 or 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.

And of course, when Christmas came around, no self-respecting Kagay-anon home would be complete without its famous hams (Oroham, Pine and SLERS).

“The ham business in Cagayan is still very much around,” Ms. San Juan said. “There was a time when it’s only in Cagayan de Oro where you can find a bone-in ham all year round. Before, my friends from Manila would call me up to order because that type of ham would only be available during the Christmas season.”

Cebuano-speaking peoples are often 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 popular places where one could get a decent barbecue. Tthe more budget conscious went to Chicken a la carte along Toribio Chaves street behind the Philippine National Bank or its bigger branch near Rizal Street. 

Before the fast-food wave hit the shores of Cagayan de Oro, local entrepreneurs strove to fill the gap. Among them were Elpie and Rose Paras whose Sesame Sandwich Shop (its Big Bird Burger was a worthy counterpart of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder), Roxy’s Diner, 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, originally at the Casa del Chino Igua.

“Paolo’s was proudly the first to serve Continental Cuisine and later was the first to introduce Japanese Cuisine to diversify the menu choices,” recalls Nena.”We also had Piazza de Paolo and Javis bar when we moved to the new place across the street.”

Things started picking up in the mid-90s when a new breed of entrepreneurs like the yuppies behind Corso Guerlani, 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-Gaerlan and Tiano streets as coined by Lito Muñoz) 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. 

Change may have taken its time in arriving in the once sleepy town of Kagay-an (as old-timers often call their beloved hometown) but when it did, it came with a rush that caught even many an unwary resident by surprise, a trend that continues unabated to this day. 

(Mike Baños, a longtime member of the Cagayan de Oro Press Club, is attached with the Cagayan de Oro City Historical & Cultural Commission, City Tourism Council and City Price Coordinating Council.—editor)