Many years ago, when I was visiting Puerto Princesa in Palawan, my hosts brought me to Baker’s Hill for “merienda,” and then asked if I wanted to try a local delicacy called “tamilok.”
When I asked what it was and where it came from, the vendors were not very helpful, except to say it came from “kahoy” or wood. I thought maybe they were mushrooms or grubs, which you do get from wood. But what they were trying to feed me looked more like slime marinated in vinegar and garlic.
I gave up asking about it and just courageously tried the dish. The texture reminded me of “uni,” popularly served as Japanese sashimi or sushi. People often describe it as sea urchin roe or eggs, but it’s not quite eggs as in female eggs, but the other kind of eggs as in male gonads (okay, okay, testes). Got you there, didn’t I?
As with uni, the tamilok was not bad, but it wasn’t something I would crave, more so because I couldn’t figure out what it was. At least with balut—our favorite challenge to visitors—you know (and then don’t want to know) what it is.
Fast forward to last week, when Dr. Giselle Concepcion of UP Diliman’s Marine Science Institute sent out an e-mail proudly announcing the publication of a new discovery by the UP team working with the Northeastern University in Boston.
The team reported about the new organism in the scientific journal PeerJ (yes, that’s the correct title) and named it Tamilokus mabinia. The species name comes from Mabini, Batangas, where the organism was found. The genus name, Tamilokus, revived my memories of Palawan’s tamilok.
Giselle was able to confirm my suspicions. Tamilok is made from a shipworm, one of several species distributed all over the world. They do look like worms and, as their common name implies, they can be found on ships, where the “worms” don’t just live on, but live off the wood—literally termites of the seas.
The shipworms take care of boring into the wood, then bacteria in their gills digest the cellulose in the wood. Like termites, they can be very destructive. It was these shipworms that forced the seafaring Dutch to find ways to build sturdier ships, dikes and harbors that could resist not just storms but these shipworms.
It turns out the shipworms aren’t worms, or insects (as termites are), but clams or bivalves, even if they don’t look it. Also, they don’t just live on ships; Palawan’s tamilok comes from shipworms (or, more correctly, woodworms) harvested from woody plants in mangroves. Yes, they’re mangrove termites.
All this information whetted my appetite, intellectually and not gastronomically, for tamilok. I googled and found articles and YouTube videos about tamilok being sold not just in Palawan, but also in Aklan, Capiz and Sultan Kudarat (thanks, Kapuso Jessica Soho for your documentary).
Our shipworms are catching the attention of scientists especially after an article was published last year in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reporting the discovery of a giant shipworm in Mindanao, again by Northeastern University working with UP’s Marine Science Institute. This shipworm was named Kuphus polythalamia.
When I say giant, I mean it—an amazing creature that can grow to as long as 1.5 meters. Unlike its other tamilok cousins, this one does not eat wood. Instead, it has bacteria in its gills that generate, from mud, the gas hydrogen sulfide, which is then metabolized into organic carbons that become the shipworm’s source of nutrition.
Studies like these help us to uncover the mysteries of nature, especially the way plants and animals adapt to their environments.
Even more importantly, studying the way shipworms use bacteria to break down organic materials (wood, mud) might lead us to find new chemicals that can “digest” other bacteria—in other words, antibiotics. (Tamilok does sound like the name of a medicine, doesn’t it?)
For a good weekend read, look up The New York Times articles: “What’s pink and pinstriped and digests wood?” and “This is a Giant Shipworm” (and later described as a “nightmare”). I gave abbreviated titles, but a Google search should get you to the articles, which, in turn, have the links to get you, if you’re interested, to the more serious scientific journal reports.
Meanwhile, do take the tamilok challenge in Palawan, Aklan, Capiz, Sultan Kudarat, wherever. Can I ask readers to send me accounts of their tamilok adventures, and new reports on where they may be found?
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