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In southern Philippines, special ‘black stew’ offers taste of local Muslim culture

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  • Tiyula itum takes dark color from charred coconut powder
  • Dish is often served during festivities, including holy fasting month of Ramadan

ZAMBOANGA CITY: As she tosses charred coconut powder into a bowl of marinated beef, Yolanda Adrias prepares a special dish that is not only a famous southwestern Philippine delicacy, but also a gateway to the cultural identity of one of the region’s largest Muslim ethnic groups.

The dish, tiyula itum, means black stew in the language of the Tausug people, who live primarily in the southwestern parts of the Mindanao island group — in Sulu and Zamboanga.

Though not a native member of the Tausug community, 28-year-old Adrias, a gourmet cook of Philippine cuisines, has mastered tiyula itum to perfection, gaining some fame in Zamboanga where she works.

“Our Tausug neighbors here would request me to cook it for them,” she told Arab News as she began to saute onion, garlic and lemongrass to intensify the flavor of the dish.

She then adds beef and brings it to a boil, mixing in chili to produce the spicy kick that many people love about the stew.

Left to simmer for a while until the meat becomes soft, the ingredients soon take on color from the charred coconut, turning black in the process.

Sometimes known as “royal beef stew” and historically linked to the dining rooms of the Sultanate of Sulu, which existed until the early 20th century, tiyula itum is nowadays served on special occasions such as weddings or religious festivals closely linked with Tausug traditions.

“It’s our identity,” Jainab Abdulmajid, who used to work as provincial tourism officer in Sulu, told Arab News. “If you want to know the Tausug culture, you have to embrace our delicacy.”

For the family of Gamaria Abubakar Bawasanta, a former civil servant in Sulu, tiyula itum is a staple dish during the fasting month.

“Most Tausug families serve that dish during Ramadan,” the 59-year-old said. “It’s part of our culture.”

To some, it is also the ultimate comfort food, and one that brings a sense of belonging.

Ismael Bantilano, a taxi driver in Zamboanga, would always make a stop at Kim-Rise, a restaurant famous for tiyula itum, to feel better whenever he is feeling low or under the weather.

“If someone from the family has a cough or cold, the soup is a good remedy,” he said, recounting how during his childhood, the stew would bring him relief during illness.

But Bantilano’s strongest memory of the distinct flavor of tiyula itum is related to his late mother, who would await his return from school to serve the dish.

“It’s my comfort food,” he said. “I can’t live without having it whenever I am craving.”

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