Tortang suwake (uni) in Alibijaban

The locals in Alibijaban cook sea urchins (suwake) by pan-frying it with beaten egg, the way most Filipinos would with grilled eggplant for a dish called torta. Photo by Faith Fajardo-Bautista

We skirted along the shores of Alibijaban, a little-known island off the coast of the Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon province, taking smartphone photos of beaches and mangroves that seemed prehistoric. We were walking with a stray beach dog that wasn’t sure whether to lead or follow us. The sun is setting fast. We all thought of heading back to the cheap room we were renting for two nights when we ended up in a far-flung hut towards the edge of the beach. By then it was too late: there was total darkness and it would take us thirty minutes to go back to town. We started walking back through the man-made elevated path that snakes through the beaches and mangroves. There was total darkness. All three of us felt very alone. We could only hear the shuffling of our feet in the sand. A single howl of a dog was enough to make us shudder. To our horror, parts of the path weren’t lit at all: good thing I charged my phone, and the built-in flashlight helped. In my mind’s eye we were in a nightvision footage of a horror film or a bleak reality show, and someone’s out to get us.

According to the boatman, there is a local ordinance in Alibijaban that forbids them from overharvesting marine resources like seafood. Photo by Faith Fajardo-Bautista

We finally arrived in what the locals consider as their town proper, with houses illuminated by candles or by lights powered by thrumming generators. The roomkeeper was worried about us – she thought we got lost. Our dinner was liempo, rice and a dish that locals do to sea urchins, or to make the most out of our haul of freshly caught sea urchins earlier that afternoon. She took out the gonads (uni in Japanese cuisine), beats it with egg and fries it in oil the way most Filipinos would with grilled eggplant. Although locals in Alibijaban didn’t have a name for it, I referred to it as tortang suwake, after their word for sea urchins (suwake), and the treatment of beating it with egg (torta). When asked if they consume sea urchins often, the boatman who toured us around the island that morning said, dismissively, that the locals are sick of it.

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