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Pearls in Palawan

Pearls in Palawan

Origins - Sn 1/Ep 1Origins - Sn 1/Ep 1

Erwan travels to the gorgeous island of Palawan where he meets with the locals and learns about pearl farming.

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Transcript

- Hey guys! I'm Arawan Yusaf and let me take you around the Philippines as we discover the people and the food that make this country a special place. Welcome to the Philippines, a mysterious gem composed of over 7,500 islands. I'm Arawn Yusaf, a Filipino and French cook and traveler. I'm always on the move and after unique flavors, interesting people and immersive experiences. But sometimes when you look too far away, you miss out on what's right in front of you. I'm on a journey to uncover the origins of this amazing country and the food I love. Welcome to the Philippines, the place I call home. I want to show you a gem in Southeast Asia as I discover this culture that has endured multiple colonizations, thus creating a unique identity of its own. This nation is an undiscovered treasure of delicious local ingredients, experiences, and fascinating people. In this episode, we find ourselves in the southwestern part of the Philippines in the province of Palawan. It is named after its largest island, Palawan Island, a very long and narrow stretch of land. It is famous for its almost 2,000 kilometers of irregular coastline, rocky coves, and sugar white sandy beaches. Its crystal-clear waters and consistent tropical weather make it an ideal place for farming one of the most beautiful gifts from nature, golden pearls. This deep, rich color can only be found in South Sea pearls produced in the Philippines. Pearl production also creates a byproduct that is regarded as a delicacy in Asia, pearl meat. To see some of these beautiful pearls and understand how they are harvested, I went to visit my good old friend Jack, who grew up with pearl farming and now runs his dad's business. - [Man] That's a nice one. See the color there? - [Woman] Mm-hmm. - [Man] Super dark gold. - [Anawar] In the late '70s after success in Tahiti with black pearl cultivation, his family set up a few farms in Palawan. Over decades, they learned how to produce large sea pearls with their rich, natural golden color that would eventually become the official gem of the country. - The reason Palawan was chosen was because it was one of the most pristine environments you could find anywhere in the world. Palawan to this day remains the center of the world's marine biodiversity and biodensity. So it's an area that has to be extremely protected, not just for the marine life of the Philippines but for the health of the marine ecosystem of the world. With my father's experience in Tahiti with the black pearl previously, it was very clear that the beauty of the pearl is inextricably linked with the beauty of the place. And so it was here in Palawan that he found the extremely rare golden South Sea pearl which is the rarest color of South Sea pearl in the world. - You could find naturally a South Sea pearl in the wild, but it's extremely rare to find one like that, correct? - Right. So natural pearls are extremely rare and extremely difficult to find because of the pilferage of the natural oyster beds in the early 1900s. I would say about 99.9% of the pearls you would find on the market today are pretty much cultured pearls. - Can you walk us through the process of how you go from nothing to an oyster that will eventually give you a golden pearl? - The process in total takes about five years. So after we breed them, we grow out the babies for a couple of years 'til they mature, at which point we do the first operation where we insert a nucleus into the oyster to begin the pearl cultivation process which then would take another two years before we could maybe harvest a pearl. There are no guarantees. So basically you're working towards perfection for five years without knowing ever what the end result will be right up until that moment of harvest. - What are some of the modern difficulties that you've encountered? - In the recent years, it has become a little bit more challenging because of the rate of change we are experiencing from the natural environment. So by that I mean, rising ocean temperatures, rising sea level, stronger typhoons of which Yolanda was one of them which we saw completely devastated parts of the Philippines. And all of that together, the worst is the ocean acidification which is really becoming an exponential problem for all marine life. - How is the health in general of the marine life now? - The health of marine life has been intrinsic with what we do for decades. We've been ringing the alarm bell and it seems that it's only, I would say, in the last five years maybe that it's starting to ring a bell with some people. So cultured farming is basically man working in symbiosis with nature to produce this beautiful gem. It's about husbandry. It's about taking care of the environment, taking care of the local communities, our people so they can in turn take care of the oyster and the reward for doing those things well might be a beautiful golden South Sea pearl. - In the Philippines, community is everything. We have a culture based around family. People say it's the community that makes these islands really special. And when living on an island, teamwork is everything. The divers and biologists rely on each other to care for the underwater farm. Diving is physically demanding so they meet up regularly for a workout in order to stay fit. And if I want to go with them, I've got to pass their test. That was so crazy. Those guys are so fast. Their job is already so physically demanding. It was just really great to bond with them and to meet everyone. It was just so much fun. Everyone was really excited. I think now we're gonna have a really good day forward. To help me grasp the concept of how pearls are farmed, we strapped on some scuba gear and inspected one of the lines that they have strung along in the middle of the sea. Crates hang suspended in what seems like midair with nothing but endless blue ocean surrounding us. Like any other form of farming, pearl farming can be a risky business. Any change in water conditions and temperature can have a huge effect on the oysters so divers will check these lines and the surrounding waters every day to ensure that the environment is ideal. To further understand the environmental impacts of pearl cultivation, Jack referred me to Maria, a marine biologist. Maria helps Jack's farm maintain a harmonious relationship with the ecosystem. - 23 years ago when we came to this farm, everything was damaged because of dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing and compressor fishing so most of the damages were from the illegal fishermen around here because they want to get instant food. They want to really get money quick. They said that they are not aware it will affect the future generation, their children, their grandchildren, so they just live for the moment. Climate change is really very real here. We see that the sea is rising. We have in the laboratory the markings where way back in 1998 up to the present, it's really been really very high. We also see that we experience coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is really the effect of the high temperature. We can see the effect on the growth of our oysters and even on the quality of the pearls that we produce. When we build a pearl farm here, it's already a good effect on the environment because whenever the security patrols go around, they would really catch those illegal fishermen doing dynamite fishing, cyanide fishing. We really are seeing the good effect of what we do here. The natural status of the coral reefs, specifically here in Palawan, is quite good because it's now starting to really grow. All the drums, all the baskets and nets that were placed under water, they served as artificial reef. So we have this effect. So the more reefs that they see underwater, so more of marine organisms breathe. We're able to maintain the breathing, the growing, and multiplication of coral reefs around here. As a biologist, we just want to maintain a good and clean water. So it's like double. We take care of the environment and at the same time, we are able to have a beautiful gem which is the pearl. - It was so interesting to hear how the pearl farms have a positive influence on the local environment. And what most people don't know is that there's a byproduct of pearl cultivation. Known mostly as pearl meat, this little tender muscle is a coveted ingredient around the world and fetches a hefty price tag, both for food and medicinal purposes. Pearl meat in particular though, the one that you see and find frequently here, how did that come about? Who was the first one to pop it in their mouth and try it out? - That's a good question but I think it looked like a mussel or a scallop so I guess that's when we figured, well, let's try it out and see what it tastes like and it turns out it was pretty good. So pearl meat is actually very healthy. It has very high protein content. It also has a lot of nutrients that are very healthy for the body. In fact, it's very sought-after as an aphrodisiac. - How is it different from a regular eating oyster like we have in France or in cold waters? - Well, you don't eat all of the meat, you just eat the muscle. I would compare the pearl meat to something in between abalone and a scallop with a much richer taste. - Awesome. Okay, let's go find some pearl meat. - Let's do it. - Let's do it. We managed to grab one from the line-up and we're about to get a taste. I didn't know it was gonna be this hard. It's almost eggy. Slimy like... Yup, you need to cook this. Definitely need to cook this. Not bad, though, but eggy. Now it's time to try to cook with this pearl meat. We're going to make a local ceviche. So this is the fantastic pearl meat that we picked up awhile ago. This is really expensive stuff, actually and just because it's so rare and so hard to get. So let's get going! So we're gonna start these off by just blanching them in some water. So if you remember before when we first took this from the sea, it had a slight eggy taste which really just threw me off at first because it looks more or less like a thin scallop and I thought it'd be really nice and sweet and beautiful. So apparently when you make this in a ceviche style, instead of having it too raw, just blanch it a little bit first just to get that smell and that taste out and then it's actually quite beautiful. So some ginger, some onions, . So this is a very traditional, local preparation. Onions, ginger, tomatoes. Spring onions as well. So, small green Filipino sweet limes. Basically like a mix of a lemon and a lime. Beautiful flavor, nice and sweet. And then we're gonna add a little bit of some beautiful cane vinegar. So just a little bit of salt to season it. Mm. It tastes like such a beautiful, clean, very lean fish and it has a nice, firm texture to it. There you go. Simplest dish is sometimes the best one. Palawan contains one of the oldest, largest and most diverse rainforests in Southeast Asia. It's truly a nature lover's paradise with an abundance of flora and fauna. To really immerse ourselves into the island life, we got away from the shore and into the wild. It didn't take very long until we came across some of the larger wild animals of the island. - [Man] Got him scared, bro. Holy . Oh my god. - [Arawan] There are two species to be found in the Philippines, the Philippine freshwater crocodile and the larger saltwater crocodile which can get up to 19 feet long. - [Man] Oh my god. - [Arawan] Many of them are raised on protected crocodile farms which are geared towards the conservation of these species. In fact, the Philippines is home to a range of diverse wildlife. Jack hooked us up with some locals to show us another habitat. As we took the boat through the mangroves, all of a sudden the sky was filled with huge bats. - [Man] A bit scared. - The Palawan fruit bat, also known as the Palawan flying fox, lives in the forests here. Unfortunately, this species is believed to be in significant decline. Besides over-hunting, their biggest threat is that the forests they live in will be turned into palm and rubber plantations. We were excitedly shown how people go on their daily lives and how they catch their food. These locals only ever catch fish once every couple of months, making it very sustainable and good for the ecosystem. After seeing some of the rather adventurous wildlife, I was now curious to see what grows on this island. But growing sustainable produce can be quite difficult in this environment. So there is a need for particular attention and effort to set up sustainable farms for ingredients for the local communities. So I met up with Ivan who works at one of these community gardens. So Ivan, what do you guys plant here? - We have these passionfruit. This is a lemon. A lady's finger. We have also squash, bell pepper, lettuce, broccoli, and eggplant. - [Arawan] Families come here and then you teach them. - We teach them all the necessary stuff in raising the vegetables and also we buy the vegetables for them to have another source of income and for a healthy chemical-free foods for their families. - Great. I'm really excited to open this. So this is a ripe passionfruit, yeah? These are the sour ones or the sweet ones? - This is sweet and sour. - I love passionfruit. After Ivan showed me around, she allowed me to pick some ingredients to add to the dish that I was planning to make with our freshly-caught fish. Is this a full onion or spring onions? - Spring onions. - Spring onions. I don't want to break anything. You see, this is why people should really appreciate their food because it's really one by one, it's not like what you buy in the supermarket that's like a huge bunch. This alone with all the seafood that we have going is gonna be awesome. So obviously no Filipino dish in my opinion is complete without chilies. Do you usually use the green ones or the red ones? - The red ones. - The red ones. This with the seafood I think will be perfect. So really easy, all we need to do is just put together different ingredients to really stuff the fish with. Then we're gonna wrap it in some aluminum foil, put it over some nice braising coals and all that flavor will just be so tasty. So I'm gonna start off with some muguka leaves. These are really healthy Filipino leaves and they're mixed in already with some chopped up spring onions. So I'm gonna add some salt to that. So this could be kind of a pesto thing going on. A little bit of olive oil and then some black pepper. Put this to the side. I'm gonna go ahead and prep our ingredients. I've got one red onion. You don't really need to chop things too crazily, just a nice fine mince should be fine. All that goes into my big bowl of wonder in here and bangus is one of those fish actually called milkfish in English that is quite popular throughout the whole country. Some ginger. A bunch of garlic just because we love our garlic here. Finally I got some chilies here. I love my spicy food so I'm just gonna go ahead and be very generous with it. Crunch those up with just a tad bit of salt. Throw that in. Toss everything together. And then go ahead and stuff it all in. Once my cavity is filled, I'm gonna go ahead and wrap the fish in just some aluminum foil. Just want to make sure to layer the foils and then we're gonna go ahead and add the rest right on top. A little bit more olive oil. That gets wrapped. And that's gonna go on a nice grill for about 30 to 40 minutes and that's gonna come out so tasty. Thank you. Perfect. Food is a conduit to friendship in the Philippines. It is so important to sit down with strangers, share a meal, and always quickly and surprisingly, find yourself comfortable talking so intimately about life. We set out with a goal in mind, to try pearl meat for the very first time and understand the hype surrounding the ingredient in the Pacific. We left with much more than we set out with. Meeting all the divers, fishermen and biologists is really an inspiring experience, knowing that they are on the front line of environmental change. It is uplifting to know that there are groups of people dedicating themselves to bettering our treatment of our nature and working towards a slow yet sustainable change of mindset. When people hear about our country in the news, it's usually for less desirable headlines. However here, beneath all the noise, you can find moving stories from small voices with big dreams.

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