2 YEARS IN THE MAKING: How Iloilo became UNESCO’s ‘City of Gastronomy’

Barbecue and meat on display at a street food stall during the Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo City. (Photo courtesy of Icqgirl via  Wikimedia Commons)

By Rjay Zuriaga Castor

Iloilo City has added another prestigious accolade to its list of achievements after being recognized as a “Creative City of Gastronomy” — the first in the Philippines — by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative Cities Network.

But it took the city two years to be declared as such, thanks to the dedicated efforts involving the city government, private sectors, communities, and the Ilonggos.

Eric Divinagracia and PJ Arañador, two of the consultants behind the city’s successful bid, shared how the city’s identity has evolved to be not only the “City of Love” but also a “gastronomic hotspot” in an interview with ANC 24/7 on Friday morning.

Divinagracia, one of the consultants of the city’s bid said that the designation means that creativity, particularly in gastronomy, is front and center in the development initiatives towards the sustainability of the city.

He added that as the city continues to advance, its gastronomy and economic development align with the Sustainable Development Goals, striving to create a better and more sustainable future for all.

It can be noted that the city reapplied for the gastronomy category earlier this year after its first attempt in 2021.

The rebid was then supported by the Department of Tourism, which provided assistance to the Megaworld Museums and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) for a three-pronged gastronomic event on Ilonggo heirloom dishes called “Timplada: The Art of Ilonggo Cuisine.”

In 2022, the city launched the Flavors of Iloilo, the first-ever cookbook authored by culture and cuisine advocate Rafael Jardeleza Jr., known as Chef Tibong. The 208-page cookbook, which showcases more than 70 Ilonggo staples, is a project of Iloilo City Mayor Jerry P. Treñas and his wife, Rosalie Sarabia-Treñas.

Arañador pointed out that UNESCO’s criteria is a “tough” one.

“There was the first bid and now the second bid some few months ago. And then we look into the gaps of the first bid and I think we really aligned what we have now towards achieving the sustainable development goals, like for example, better consumption, protection of the environment as we prepare our gastronomy here in this city,” he explained.

While UNESCO representatives were not able to taste the local cuisines, Arañador said they have to double their efforts as to how to make the documentation palpable to their judgment and pass through the social pillars of the UN agency: social, economic, industrial, science, technology, and the academe.

“It was a visual treat. It was a review of the documentation, basically. And I think what strengthened or bolstered the Iloilo designation was really the participation of the community, you know, all walks of life that take part in gastronomy,” he added.

For Divinagracia, what makes the city’s food ahead and unique from the others is it is served with “pagpalangga and paghigugma” — a characteristic Ilonggos are known for.

On the technical aspect, Arañador emphasized that the diversity of Iloilo’s food and its preparation methods carry traces of historical and cultural significance.

“The living traditions are not necessarily only in cooking, but in tools, how we prepare. Ilonggo cuisine has a long history because we had indigenous peoples who were untouched by the Spanish and the Americans […] The secret then is putting in a lot of our beliefs, and traditions. These are heirlooms that were passed on among our ancestors,” he noted.

Arañador highlighted that Iloilo City successfully showcased its rich culture and the enduring history of the Ilonggos through its “highly localized” cuisine, which aligns with UNESCO’s objectives.

“This is what UNESCO likes because this is what their platform is all about,” he added.

UNESCO said that the cities in the Creative Cities Network are cities that are “leading the way when it comes to enhancing access to culture and galvanizing the power of creativity for urban resilience and development.”

Divinagracia said the distinction will open more doors for the city to connect and collaborate with other creative cities regionally and globally while contributing to the development goals of the United Nations.

“Aside from preserving and conserving our heirloom cuisines [we also look forward] to elevate our gastronomy here in the city. We hope to see more chefs, more innovation in the field of gastronomy, more interlocking of arts,” he added.

Arañador, meanwhile, believed the distinction would encourage other cities to follow suit and also apply for similar distinction.

“The UNESCO Creative Cities Network the recipients to go beyond let’s say in gastronomy food because they are pillars. These are like to celebrate creativity, culture and knowledge, you know, because we define gastronomy as food in relation to our culture,” he said.


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