Pili Nuts, Lato, And Uni—You’ll Have To Travel To Bicol To Enjoy These At Their Freshest
Only in Bicol will you find fresh pili nuts, seaweed, and straight-out-of-the-ocean sea urchin at peak freshness and flavor
When talking about the province, there are two things that immediately come to mind—fresh air and fresh food. Where else can you get produce and ingredients picked or harvested at their most prime condition? In your neighbor’s backyard, your own garden, or at the local market where the farmers drop off their produce before it gets sent off to the metro.
The beauty of the provinces is that each region has its own unique products—that’s why you can find varied cuisines and dishes wherever you go. When in Bicol, you can look forward to these fresh picks and produce that we got to enjoy when Metro.Style joined the Best of Bicol Food Tour.
Did you know that the pili nut is one of the most valuable products of the Philippines? The demand for both the pili fruit and its oils is very high, even outside the country, and only the Philippines is able to commercially grow this rare nut. Bicol plays a huge role as more than 90% of the pili being exported by the Philippines comes from Bicol. It so happens that the volcanic elements of the region’s soil are perfect for the pili tree’s growth.
While pili is undeniably one of Bicol’s biggest pillars, during a tour of the J. Emmanuel House of Pili in Camarines Sur, we found out that, although global demand for pili is rising, pili supply continues to drop. This has caused the price of pili to shoot up.
We know pili in its most commercial form—salted, sweetened, or put in tarts. But in Bicol, we learned that pili can be enjoyed fresh or roasted, or even blanched to become a viand.
When eating fresh pili, you simply cut the pili in half and use a toothpick to scoop up the pili nut from within. Fresh like this, the pili tastes similar to an almond.
Blanched pili or nilanta is a version where boiling hot water is pour over whole, unopened pili. Doing so softens the skin so one can peel it off easily. In this form, the pili pulp can be eaten as well. Many Bicolanos dip it in fish sauce and eat it with rice. Who would’ve thought pili can be eaten like this!
I’ve always viewed sea urchin as a Japanese delicacy, but little did I know that they are plentiful in Pilar, Sorsogon. We rode a boat to a tiny island near Kubkob lighthouse and were treated to the freshest sea urchins. The divers we were with literally just swam and dove for the sea urchins, brought them up to the boat, and we feasted on them right then and there.
To enjoy sea urchin, you have to pry it open with a small knife, rinse with fresh water (because sea water is too salty), and remove the insides so you’re left with the delicious-looking orange uni. This is the freshest and most delicious sea urchin can be.
Lato, a kind of seaweedpopularly known as sea grapes, is a delicacy in Bicol, usually served as a salad. Biting into the small, grape-like vines is an experience!
From the sea urchin area, we rode the sea a little further to Panlatian Bay to harvest fresh lato. Unlike other seaweed, lato grows at the bottom of the sea because it likes the cool temperature. To harvest, you also have to dive to for it.
Cleaning the lato is a bit more challenging because it doesn’t like fresh water. So upon harvest, we rinsed the lato in sea water, trying our best to remove the black and slimy parts with our fingers. The lato dries easily so when it reaches the dining table from the market, the grape-like tentacles would have already shrunk. So we were fortunate to have enjoyed it in its freshest form, bright and swollen and sweet. It’s best served with a vinegar-onion dipping sauce.
Fresh seaweed and fresh uni—definitely one of the tastiest and best mornings I’ve had!
This piece is part of a three-part series on Bicolano food.
Tempted to experience Bicol the way we did? Check out Best of Bicol on Facebook and Instagram to stay tuned to their food tours, offering soon!