Eat and go: Pastil unwraps the Moro food culture

From its Maguindanaoan roots to its popularity in and beyond General Santos City, pastil has truly championed the intricacies of Mindanaoan cuisine.

Would you believe that a complete rice meal would only cost you around P10 to P15?

This cost-effective promise can be found in the humble pastil or pater—steaming hot rice topped with sautéed shredded meat, wrapped in a wilted banana leaf, sometimes paired with a side dish of choice. Commonly sold in stalls along the streets, it’s perfect for those on a quest for a budget-friendly, on-the-go meal.

Originally hailing from Maguindanao, pastil has since spread across other locations in Mindanao—with General Santos City (GenSan) being a popular location to try the binalot-style meal. Its popularity can be traced back to a scene in Mindanao State University—General Santos City, where students were struggling to find cheap food. Due to extended neglect from the government during the 90s, people found themselves selling the delicacy at a low price.

Pastil was a blessing in disguise; the food built itself as an affordable go-to meal for students after their classes. “It’s a known staple food from Muslims that even non-Muslims [have adopted],” remarks Makoy Camposano, co-founder of Mamastill Atbp.—a restaurant based in GenSan.

Parade of flavors

Just like any other Filipino dish, pastil would not forgo the presence of rice. Pastil makers share this common technique of using jasmine rice combined with a small part of glutinous rice for it to hold its shape inside the wrapper. Meanwhile, in the city of Cagayan De Oro in Northern Mindanao, the locals find that adding turmeric to the rice not only makes it yellow in color but also elevates its taste. This rings true for Karim Hasaan* (III, LIM-CW), “Isa rin ‘yun sa nagpapasarap sa pater…I think it’s sweeter that way.” 

(It makes pater more delicious.)

Then comes the highlight of the dish: the umami-filled kagikit, which is sautéed shredded chicken, beef, or fish that serves as the ulam. But kagikit isn’t the only option for one’s viand of choice. “I always order two beef rendang [pastils] topped with two sunny side-up eggs, spending less than P100 but leaving the restaurant with a full stomach,” Hasaan shares. Consequently, what harmonizes the feast of flavor in pastil are its side dishes, “Here in GenSan, pastil is usually paired with sautéed eggplant,” Camposano shares in Filipino, “We don’t leave it out [on our menu].”

And since Mindanaoans are fond of spicy foods, they flare up their pastil by adding either sambal, an Indonesian chili paste, or palapa—which consists of thinly chopped chili, ginger, garlic, grated coconut, and other spicy condiments, Hasaan describes. To neutralize that punch of flavor, pickled cucumbers render an optimal balance to the dish—making it the perfect palate cleanser.

Ultimately, as a final touch, pastil must be wrapped in a banana leaf. This element makes it fit to be eaten by hand, on which Hasaan believes, “That’s where you’ll feel the Filipino taste.” But not only is this savory dish a gastronomic experience.

Pastil transcends the boundaries of food to me. It’s part of our culture as a Moro and Filipino,” the student affirms. As the pastil wrapper unfolds, what lingers are the locals’ nostalgic stories waiting to be told.

Taste of nostalgia

Both Camposano and Hasaan have invigorating memories about this humble Moro dish. For the Literature student, memories of pastil were clouded by high school experiences. He narrates an old story of treating all his classmates to pastil during one of his birthdays, even when he didn’t commonly celebrate the occasion. He simply wanted to feed his classmates’ curiosity regarding the treat, “I remember looking at their faces when the first-timers realized how great the food was.”

Meanwhile, Camposano reminisces about the first time he tried pastil, “When I eat [it], it brings me back to my college days.” The memories were rooted so deeply that he can still recall eating pastil in the evenings with friends. Apart from the fun memories, he associates pastil as a friend in trying times, “Because pastil existed na talaga in my college days, ‘yun na talaga ‘pag gipit na gipit na ako, ‘yun ‘yung kinakapitan ko.

(Pastil had already existed in my college days, and it was really what I held on to when I barely had anything.)

Beyond pastil as a delicacy is a story of cultural and religious significance to Mindanao’s Muslim population. It originated from the Moros in Maguindanao, its banana leaf spread previously only found on the table during special occasions. The presence of pastil graced Muslim weddings, birthdays, and Eid al-Fitr; to this, Hasaan thinks that eating pastil with others is one of the best ways to connect with people, even with those outside of the Moro community.

With all this nostalgia from then until now, pastil has evolved to become a common delicacy of Mindanao—its presence prevailing among students, professionals, and even children. “Hindi ko ma-explain kung bakit ko siya binabalik-balikan,” Camposano starts, “But I think a lot of us come back for its nostalgic taste, the memory it can bring back.”

(I can’t explain why I keep coming back to it.)

Beyond satisfaction

Unfortunately, memories don’t feed hungry mouths. Last 2020, the pandemic took a toll on the industry; sidewalk vendors were restricted from selling pastil, and for the first time, the delicacy began to disappear from the streets. These acclaimed vendors were forced to rely on their savings or to create other streams of income to survive.

At the time, Camposano was working for another food company in Davao.

After returning to GenSan, the first thing his mouth and heart looked for was pastil. Since it was nowhere to be found at the time, this encounter pushed him to start Mamastill Atbp., “My business partner and I thought of elevating the common pastil experience. It was November of 2020 when everything started.”

Camposano’s pastil business was undeniably a success. “[People] loved it, and they always come back to eat here,” he attests. They even started to make pastil into unique forms by introducing Mamastill Atbp.’s “Pastil in a jar” where they sell kagikit by the jarful—a perfect pasalubong to account for the staple Mindanaoan food.

“We’re really happy that we have customers [who want to help promote pastil] to a wider market,” Camposano shares. Apart from this, the restaurant’s menu is a pastil haven, from their pasta to quesadillas made out of chicken pastil. “Hindi siya pushy na incorporation, it actually works!” Camposano proudly remarks.

(It’s not a pushy incorporation.)

As authorities have gradually eased pandemic restrictions, Camposano is overjoyed that pastil street vendors are again present in every corner of the streets. With hope that this pillar of Mindanaoan cuisine only flourishes from here, one is reminded that a bite of pastil prompts the importance of supporting one’s culture—as sharing and passing these practices on is an inherent part of them in its own right.

To Mindanaoans, this is more than just rice wrapped in a banana leaf. Hasaan finishes, “Its unique, traditional taste, and look allow people to value the tradition that has been carried on since the past: [the tradition of] forming and sealing love for one another.” Pastil lived among them and is and will always be a living reminder of who they are.

*Names with asterisks are pseudonyms

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By Arianne Joy Melendres

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