Photo Essay

Home Is a Bowl of Warm Soup


A photographer returns home to Sulu after 13 years and rediscovers the heritage of his people through food.

Photography by
Mohd Sarajan
Read Time
Location Tag

Tausug cuisine is found in many places across the Philippines, from Sulu to Zamboanga, and even in some parts of Southern Palawan. From savory dishes to sweet delicacies, the roots of Tausug food can be traced to the neighboring state of Sabah, Malaysia, and boasts of a history that extends well before the arrival of the first Spaniards.

Prepared following the Islamic Halal dietary law, most Tausug food is often meant for communal feasting. Dishes like beef kulma, chicken piyanggang, and lokot lokot are normally reserved for weddings, burials, and other special occasions.

Left to Right: Chef Mariam Mustapha of KEYO's Little Kitchen holding a bowl of Tiyula Itum; delicacies like lokot lokot and baulu are served in family gatherings, from Muslim weddings to burials.

When I think of Tausug cuisine, however, I think of my grandmother’s homemade tiyula itum.

A traditional dish similar to nilaga or tinola, tiyula itum is made with braised beef or goat meat, marinated in mixed spices and charred coconut meat. Literally translated as “black soup,” this dish is often served during Muslim weddings or during paghinang pito—the feast on the seventh day of burial. My grandmother would always prepare tiyula itum for us whenever we visited home; she knew it was my favorite, and treated each of our visits as special occasions on their own.

Various spices give Tiyula Itum its strong flavor, including ginger, turmeric, and charred coconut meat.

I spent most of my youth living outside the Philippines; I studied in Qatar from grade school to high school, and only came back to Zamboanga when it was time to go to college. While living abroad, my mom—who was born and raised in Sulu—would tell me stories of her childhood, and that made me want to learn more about my parents’ roots.

From top: An afternoon at Talipao City; Fishermen bring in the day's catch at Jolo Central Market; With its Moorish architecture and golden domes, the Sulu Provincial Capitol is considered as one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the country.

In January, I returned to Sulu for the first time since 2007, and spent four days traveling and reconnecting with my mother’s side of the family. I roamed wherever I could, from the mosques to the wet markets, to the provincial capitol of Sulu. With help from friends in Zamboanga, I also connected with restaurant owners in the city who taught me about the different traditions of Tausug cooking and cuisine.

Clockwise, from left: Many in Sulu use wooden boats for public transport and fishing; A fisherman with his catch; Hosts prepare food for visitors on the seventh day vigil.

Exploring and photographing Tausug cuisine became the window through which I saw not only my parents’ culture, but my own history and people. I realized then that there was still so much of our hometown that I needed to explore.

Bottom: Family members hand out food during the seventh day vigil. Muslim wake tradition is always a special experience; part dramatic send off, part family reunion, they never fail to bring people together to ruminate on our short time on this planet.

Revisiting Sulu gave me a new perspective, and though I felt like a stranger at times, the whole experience still felt comfortingly familiar, and made me see home in a new light.


This story was originally published in GRID Volume 09.