By Ayunan G. gunting
IT WAS a showing of resilience after a tragedy. Last Dec. 3, 2023, the Islamic State group bombed a Catholic Mass that claimed four lives at the Mindanao State University(MSU) gymnasium in Lanao del Sur. Days later, a group of chefs in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte, went on to observe the island’s annual Week of Peace; paid tribute to the victims, and offered a message of hope through their cuisine. Held at The Alemania Hotel, the Tri-People Cuisine for Interfaith Solidarity celebrated the diversity in Northern Mindanao which comprises Muslims, Lumads, and Christians through food.
“I always dedicate my food to everyone to promote peace,” says chef Rohaniah Magarang Guro, better known as Leng Rohann. The foods represented the different faiths. Leng prepared her signature Chicken Pindiyalokan, a Muslim dish of chicken, laced with palapa- a Maranao condiment with ginger, shallots, turmeric, chilies, and shredded coconut and her famous Roasted Pindiyalokan. The Christian cooks offered adobo Iligan while the Higaonon tribe presented grilled seafood on bamboo.
Accomplished at 42, Leng wears many hats as a restaurateur, culinary educator, government worker, and president of the Iligan Hotels and Resorts, Restaurants Association (Iharra).
A Maranao from Butig, Lanao del Sur, she has been called Lengleng, a derivative of malingkat which means beautiful in Tausug. Coming from a family of cooks, she recalls that their torogan, the ancestral home of Maranao nobility was known for good food that settled disputes. Warring parties dropped their weapons as they entered the dining room. After enjoying her grandmother’s cooking, differences were immediately settled.
As a child, she played with kiddie kitchen utensils instead of toys while her grandmother put in the ingredients. She later started out as an apprentice in Chef Dennis Barazon’s cooking demos on Malaysian cuisine and everyday staples.
In 2009, she married Abdul Salam Magarang, a contractor and second cousin of her mother. Abdul worked in the construction of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh and Alyat Madinah Mall in Saudi Arabia. Since the couple both enjoyed cooking, they would try out Abdul’s versions of pizzas and burgers which he learned abroad.
Leng pursued her passion for cooking by taking up a short course at the Alternative Learning School in Iligan in 2014. The following year, Leng, a classmate, and two professional chefs opened Burp Diner, catering to students in Iligan. Its specialty was Albaik chicken, breaded fried chicken, developed by a Saudi fast-food chain. Muslims, who made a pilgrimage to Mecca, raved about the chicken from the Albaik chain and brought her a sample. Instinctively, Leng made her own version which came close to the original.
Their restaurant business was disrupted by the Marawi Siege in 2017. Yet, she and her business partner Angelica Dagondon survived by catering for fundraising events, hosted by prominent people such as Sen. Tito Sotto and actor Kier Legaspi. Friends and relatives, who were displaced by the terrorist attacks, sought solace in Leng’s kitchen.
“I said couldn’t give them doleouts, but I could teach them how to cook. Many have since gotten jobs as a result,” she says.
In December 2017, Abdul died of cardiac arrest at age 34. For some years, Leng laid off from cooking and took odd jobs just to divert herself from the grief. She slept in her husband’s office instead of their bedroom. “I had not moved on. My close friends urged me to cook again. One of them bought ingredients, ordered from me, and started promoting my cooking,“ says Leng in Tagalog.
She put up Kitchenommy Cocina Studio at her husband’s office in the pandemic. During Ramadan, Leng received many orders for iftar, the dinner that broke the day-long fasting in Ramadan. Although it was successful, family members were concerned about the risks of viral contagion if customers went to their homes. Leng then returned to the building of the defunct Burp Diner to reboot the kitchen.
Former workers and their friends, who were laid off during the pandemic, applied for a jobs. Leng started paying them through free meals until her food delivery business became stable. Eventually, her staffers and riders received professional rates.
Kitchenommy is now a concessionaire at the MSU Iligan Institute of Technology. “I serve chicken wings in different variants so that the students don’t get weary of it. They also like the all-day breakfast foods such as longanisa, embotido and burger patties. I am careful about food safety that’s why I do most of the cooking myself,” she says.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Leng cooks food which is offered at the mosque for free, and donates food to orphanages.
Today, she is busy with her restaurant consultancy such as designing menus, training the staff, upgrading the hospitality standards, and organizing culinary events and contests. As the head honcho of IHARRA, Leng makes the rounds of restaurants in Iligan City to check on food safety.
One of her biggest accomplishments was to organize a training program for out-of-school youths under the USAID Opportunity 2.0 Program, with the help of Iligan Mayor Frederick Siao and IHARRA members. “After the students’ training, IHARRA will find jobs to develop them,” says Leng in Tagalog. “Anyone can survive with a frying pan.”
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