It’s been said that unless you’ve eaten tamilok, a local delicacy, you haven’t really experienced Palawan at all.
One thing not to miss … is the tamilok, a local delicacy. More commonly known as woodworm, you find it inside the trunks of fallen (mangrove) trees. Boatmen will harvest these and serve them at the end of the tour. Those who are as adventurous as Anthony Bourdain can dip it in vinegar, chili, and kalamansi. It actually tastes similar to oysters, but with a milkier texture.
What’s a tamilok?
Tamilok is the local term for the shipworm.
Shipworms are not worms at all, but rather a group of unusual saltwater clams with very small shells, notorious for boring into (and eventually destroying) wooden structures that are immersed in sea water, such as piers, docks and wooden ships. Sometimes called “termites of the sea”, they are marine bivalve mollusks (Eulamellibranchiata) in the family Teredinidae, also often known as Teredo Worms.
It’s a clam and not a worm. What a relief! To me, it tastes very much like another mollusk–the common oyster (Pilipino term: talaba).
Available at Kinabuch
Kinabuch (pronounced ki-na-butch) is the most popular restaurant in Palawan. It’s only open for dinner. Night after night, weekday or weekend, it always attracts a crowd. Everybody in Puerto Princesa knows its location (less than five minutes from the airport). It’s a local institution.
When it’s available (which is most but not all of the time), Kinabuch serves the tamilok two ways: kinilaw, which refers to being cooked with vinegar or breaded, western-style.
Kinabuch buys them from suppliers who forage the mangrove forests from as far north as Roxas (a town in northern Palawan) to as far south as Barangay Inagawan. Harvested fresh, Kinabuch keeps the mollusks for no more than two days.
Why two versions, I asked? After the waiter describes the animal, some diners who still want to taste it choose to eat the mollusk in a more familiar “package,” hence breaded. Still, they estimate that the original recipe outsells the breaded one by a margin of two to one.
Is it expensive? Well, the exchange rate has been hovering between 40 and 45 pesos to US$1 for most of the past decade (2001 to 2010). The plate shown at the top of this post is the classic recipe and costs less than US$3!
Cooked with vinegar; not with heat
Food is typically cooked with heat but there are other ways to prepare food. For instance, certain foods can just be marinated in vinegar or citrus juice and served. Cooking with heat has its advantages. High temperatures kill most pathogens (harmful bacteria) and parasites. Cooking with acid (vinegar is mostly acetic acid just as citrus juice is mostly citric acid) does not do that. On the other hand, properly-prepared kinilaw always uses fresh seafood so if you trust the restaurant that prepared the dish, you can assume that you’re eating fresh seafood.
Kinilaw means to “cook” in vinegar. It’s not really cooking since there is no heat involved. But soaking fish or some other seafood in a strong vinegar solution turns the meat opaque and gives it a texture of having been cooked [with heat]. There’s really nothing complicated about making this wonderful Filipino dish. You season the cubed fish fillets with salt and pepper then soak them in strong vinegar.
Kinilaw is very similar to ceviche, a popular seafood dish found in Central and South America.
Ceviche is typically made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices such as lemon or lime and spiced with chilli peppers. Additional seasonings such as onion, salt, coriander/cilantro, and pepper may also be added.
About the term tamilok:
The tamilok, a wood worm which tastes like your familiar oyster, is a famous delicacy found in Palawan. Although it looks like a worm, it is actually a mollusk found inside [rotting] mangroves. The word ‘tamilok’ was surprisingly coined by two Americans. They started calling one of their friends – “Tommy, look!”, after seeing the locals eating the tree worm. The locals adopted this term to refer to this wood worm delicacy.
I disagree with her description of the mangroves that the tamilok are found in. Tamilok are not necessarily found in “rotting” mangroves. Rather, they are found in adult mangrove trees.
The mollusk’s shape (worm-like) and texture (slimy) are challenging enough to a would-be diner that it needs no association with that “rotting” word!
Two sisters-in-law ate tamilok last week at Kinabuch. Here are their reactions.
The one who enjoyed it actually helped herself to several helpings. I bring you Ms. Noemi Trinidad from MetroManila.
Noemi’s sister-in-law struggled a bit to swallow the mollusk. I bring you Ms. Zelda H, visiting from Los Angeles, California.
The freshly-made green mango-ginger shake, by the way, is not only delicious but also nutritious!
Well done, Zelda! You’re now a true Palaweno.
Sonny, her husband, agrees.
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