A Taste of Ilocos Norte

When in Ilocos, do as the Ilocanos do, which, for the most part means eating heavily. At any given time of the day, Ilocanos are likely to be nibbling at a snack or heaving feast.

Sometimes, if a visitor is lucky, he or she gets invited to a padaya, a generic term for a festive party where celebrants pull out all stops and serve Ilocano food in all its abundance and glory. Among the most popular dishes are pinapaitan and pinakbet. There are also empanada, longganisa and bagnet.

Subtlety is not found in their gastronomic dictionary. Reflecting the difficult conditions of the land, most of the dishes are either salty or bitter. Which is why Ilocanos eat a lot of rice. However, rice is eaten not just as a neutralizer. It is central to every meal and viand is usually incidental. A few pieces of meat or vegetables would be enough for the Ilocanos as long as rice is plentiful.


The “Saluyots” of the North

In early days, the Tagalogs used to call the people of Ilocos the “Saluyots,” after the leafy vegetables. Far from being derogatory, the nickname was coined out of grudging respect for a people who had turned what was considered in the south as mere weed into a dish.

Vegetables dishes are present at the table at any given time. Farmers will eat inabraw (also called dinengdeng), a streaming broth made of leafy green vegetables, before heading off for the fields in the morning and likewise, upon returning home at sundown.

The ingenuous Ilocano can come up with various dishes during the rainy season, the rabong or bamboo shoot can be served as is (sliced finely and seasoned with fish paste, vinegar, garlic and black pepper) or as inabraw (oftentimes combined with saluyot). Rabong omelettes, croquettes and fried balls are also common. The linukotis, a kind of fried lumpia made from bamboo shoots and clam meat, is also popular.

Mushroom dishes are also common. Uong ken laplapayag is a stew of native mushrooms, black ear mushrooms and tofu. In the town of Bacarra, a flesh-colored mushroom called kuditdit is cooked with fish paste, string beans and banana heart.

Squash is used as the main ingredient for making variations of lumpia or embutido. Its flower, meanwhile, is made into a cold stew of eggs and cake flour. An unlikely culinary item is the unassuming banana blossom, which is mixed with shrimp, ground pork and beaten egg to make fried flour sticks.

In general, vegetable dishes can be grouped into the simple and the elaborate.

Ilocanos are not finicky eaters. Eggplant, ampalaya (bitter gourd) or okra are sometimes just broiled and eaten with a dip made of fish paste and vinegar or calamansi. Salutoys is often prepared as matimtim, cooked in vinegar, water, fish paste, garlic and salt. Vegetables like saluyot and okra are favored for their slimy textures.

They also have different kinds of salads. Ampalaya leaves, squasjh tops, eel grass, pipino, pako (fern), kangkong, kulot (a kind of sewed), pallang (winged bean), string bean, marunggay leaves, susop (banana blossom) and camote (a kind of rootcrop) tops are just some of the vegetables they use for salads. These are mixed with ginger, onions, vinegar, black pepper, calamansi, fish sauce and fish paste, and garnished with tomatoes.

The aforementioned inabraw is the generic term for vegetables stew. The vegetable of choice is mixed with tomatoes, ginger and the ever-present bagoong or fish paste. Sometimes, shrimp or broiled fish is also added to liven up the taste. The more exciting  inabraw varieties are the ones with the marunggay fruit (one opens the tough skin and scrapes the soft pulp inside) and the rabong shoots and the saluyot, with its distinct slimy/crunchy texture.

The combination of contrasting tastes, flavors and textures make Ilocano vegetable dishes the most exciting in the whole country. It is thus not surprising that the most important contribution of the Ilocanos to Filipino cuisine is the pinakbet.

The name is derived from the term “pinakebbet,” which means “to shrink.” It is primarily an assorted vegetable dish. Contrary to popular belief, there is no singular pinakbet dish. The common one uses the most number of vegetable ingredient, including eggplant, ampalaya, okra, stringbeans, patani, lima beans and rabanos.

In most places, pieces of fish or meat are added as sagpaw or garnishing. The most common sagpaw is bagnet (fried pork rind or meat) which adds crunchiness. However, there are places such as Pagudpud, where pinakbet is made solely with vegetables.

Pinakbet is not pinakbet without ampalaya or bagoong. These two ingredients best define the inclinations of the Ilocano palate. This particular clash of extreme tastes, the bitter and the salty, is not to be found elsewhere in the country.


Meat lovers

Meat is generally considered a luxury, served only during feasts and other special occasions. But in the same way that they have transformed the simplest of vegetables into gustatory masterpieces, their meat dishes are also as exciting.

Aside from the usual pork, beef and chicken, they also use goat and carabao meat. Everybody part and organ is utilized. Nothing is spared. Sometimes, pieces of meat are also set aside to be used for vegetable dishes. These are called sagpaw.

Dishes are classified according to the different methods of cooking, regardless of the kind of meat used. Meat is generally prepared as lauya, adobo and tinuno.

Lauya is a stew made from small bony pieces of beef, pork and chicken. These are seasoned with garlic, ginger, tomatoes, peppercorns and vinegar. Vegetables like unripe papaya, sayote, upo (a kind of gourd), string beans and yam are the added.

Adobo is an indigenized Hispanic dish common all over the country. Small pieces of meat are seasoned with vinegar, garlic, peppercorns, salt and soy sauce. A bit of water is added and the dish is tastiest when allowed to simmer over a slow fire so the flavors seep into the meat.

Tinuno is basically broiling pieces of meat (or sometimes fish) over live charcoal. It is best dipped in Iloko vinegar eaten with tomato slices.

Two of the more unique ways of preparing meat is dinardaraan and paksiw or kilawen. The former, also called dinuguan, is pig’s blood stew. Pork belly is sautéed and cooked in vinegar, crushed garlic, ground pepper and water. Fresh pig’s blood is finally added and the dish is simmered until the blood coagulates, for a thicker consistency. Ilocanos make their dinardaraan dry not “soupy”.

Dawang’s Place in San Nicolas offers crispy dinuguan, a variation on the dish which makes use of bagnet porions.

Goat meat is generally used in making traditional kilawen but nowadays, it can also be pork, beef or carabao meat. This dish is considered an Ilocano specialty. Preparing the meat actually takes longer then making the actual dish. The meat is the first signed in charcoal to remove the hair. Thin slices are then marinated in soy sauce and calamansi juice, before being grilled. Chopped onions and ginger are added to the mix.

Most of the time, though, kilawen is prepared either raw or inbaliktad. Inbaliktad means to “turn over” which means the meat is partially cooked, making it tender is partially cooked, making it tender and succulent. The dish is stewed in ginger and a bit of papait (pork bile) to give it a faintly bitter taste. Liver and tripe are also added.

More “conventional” meat dishes include lomo-lomo, yusi, igado and tapang Iloko.

Filipino tapa is usually dry but in Ilocos, it is slightly saucy. Thin sliced of lean meat cooked in vinegar, garlic and ground pepper, it is best eaten with sliced of tomato and onion.
Yusi, meanwhile is a stew made from the tender meat taken from the neck portion of the pig. The meat is first fried to release the fat before broth is added. It has a distinct, delicate flavor because of the addition of small slices of liver.

When in Badoc, try looking for the kaliente, boiled cow or carabao skin stewed in vinegar, ginger, salt and a bit of cow’s brain.

Quiet similar to the Tagalog menudo is the igado, one of the more common dishes. The more lavish versions include not only pork tenderloin but also pork liver, heart and kidney. These are sautéed before adding vinegar and soy sauce. Its characteristic ingredients are bell pepper and green peas.

Adventurous types should try dishes made from innards and other body parts. Pork intestines are sometimes added in the kilawen. Silet is basically adobo made from intestines. Dinakdakan is made from slices of pig ears and pieces of cow brain.

Another must is the pinapaitan, a stew made from a mix of meat slices and innards. Generous amounts of papait or bile and floating bits of fat make this an extremely bitter and greasy dish. This cholesterol-laden dish is most satisfying when eaten piping hot.

During market days, one can also come across presko. As the name implies, the dish is made from fresh tenderloins right off the butcher’s table (muscle twitching and all). It is soaked in vinegar and a bit of papait, and onion slices. This dish is definitely not for those with weak stomachs.

Deer or ugsa is still caught in the forests surrounding the town of Solsona, which is located at the foot of the Cordillera mountain range. The usual way of preparing it is pochero, a stew of garbanzo’s, bananas, pechay leaves and potatoes. Sometimes it is also prepared with sitaw beans or added to the traditional dish pinapaitan.

Longganisa and bagnet are two of the most popular meat products in the province. You can find this in every market. Ilocanos take pride in their longganisa. These homemade sausages are made from a mixture of ground pork, pork fat, chopped garlic and ground pepper. The tastiest longganisa can be found in San Nicolas and Batac.


Catch of the Day

The province’s coastline offers some of the freshest catch. In recent years, Pagudpud has transformed from a sleepy coastal town to beachlovers paradise.

If a cookout is in order, visitors should head straight for the wet market in Sitio Gaod, Balaoi, where fish and seafood are cheap. Crayfish-sized lobsters in particular tend to be snatched up quickly so it’s best to go early. Saltwater and fresh water fish are also available.

Likewise, there are a variety of shells to be had such a clams, siek, bukasit and unnok. These can be mixed with vegetables or simply stewed in ginger and tomatoes. Birabid are very small shells fermented in salt, which can be bought by the bottle. It’s very salty and should be eaten with vinegar.

There are many kinds of seaweed to be had such as bangi, pampan-aw, kilo and kulot. The most common is pukpuklo, a stringy variety of seaweed. This typical coastal town fare is prepared with tomato slices and eaten fresh.

Gamet is another popular seaweed. Similar to the Japanese nori, this seasonal delicacy is found in Pagudpud and Burgos. The quality of gamet sold in markets is determined by its color, sheen and thickness. First grade gamet is darker in color, shinier and thicker. Lower quality seaweeds usually have holes in them and are duller and paler in color. The best time to buy them is during the latter part of the year.

There are many ways to prepare gamet. One could roasts or steam it, or make soup omelette or salad out of it. The traditional way of preparing it is tinuno, which is fresh gamet and tomatoes wrapped in banana leaves and roasted, or dinegdeng, a stew of fish, malunggay leaves and gamet.

Aside from being gamet harvest season, the latter part of the year is also the time for catching ipon. These goby fries are another integral part of the Ilocano diet. Ipon dishes include sinigang (sour broth) or tamales. To make the former, fresh ipon is combined with tomatoes or kamias, ginger, onion and labuyo (finger pepper), and boiled in water. For the tamales, a tablespoonful mixture of fresh ipon, finely chopped onion vinegar and salt is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed over low fire.

The most common use of ipon is for making bagoong. A mixture of ipon and water is placed in sealed burnay jars and fermented for at least a month. The condiment is usually mixed with slices of green mango, onions and tomatoes to make a kind of salsa that goes well with fried fish. Bagoong is also an integral ingredient in Ilocano vegetables dishes such as pinakbet and inabraw.


Homegrown Wine

Piddig is the hometown of the famous Ilocano liquor, basi. Here, sugarcane is planted not so much for the sugar production as for making basi and molasses.

Made from fermented sugarcane juice, this dark-colored sweet tasting liquor has a fairly strong alcohol content. It is common to see farmers and ordinary folk lounging outside their houses drinking basi after sundown.

Most houses still have their own basi-making implements at the back. Harvested sugarcane stalks are taken to local crushes or sugar mills called dadapilan where the juice, called bennal, is extracted.

Some of the sugarcane juice is then collected in large vats called sinublan to make tagapulot or molasses. The rest are then made into basi. Additives like the bark, fruit, flowers and crushed dried leaves of the samac tree are added to give basi its distinctive dark color and aroma.

The juice is then poured into earthenware jars called burnay. The jars are then buried in the ground for at least a year. Eight-to ten-year old basi is considered the best and can command a high price.


The Edible Inedible

The Ilocano’s penchant for whipping up dishes from ingredients which others would consider inedible gives Ilocano cuisine its distinct edge.

One of their more exotic delicacies is buos or ants eggs. Pale white in color, the eggs are those from a large species of winged ants that are collected from nests in the mountains and forests. Buos is usually prepared with very minimal ingredients, to highlight its delicate, slightly-sour taste. Usually sautéed in tomatoes and with just a pinch of salt, it is normally eaten with rice or as pulutan. It is also prepared as a kind of tamales, which means wrapping it in banana leaves. Widely considered as an aphrodisiac, buos is a seasonal delicacy that can be found all over the province. Full-grown ants are also sold and prepared in the same manner.

Visitors can also feast on tokak or frog. These are skinned and soaked in vinegar or calamansi juice, salt and pepper. The tokak is dipped in beatenegg, coated with flour, and deep-fried. There’s also the local version of the French’s escargot. Snail meat is soaked in bagoong, black pepper and garlic, and prepared the same way as tokak.


Snack Attack

Whether it’s for a quick fix during work or simply for want of something to nibble at, Ilocanos like to snack. These snacks, sweet or otherwise, are as varied as their meat and vegetable dishes. Some are meals in themselves such as empanada and the famous miki of Batac. Miki is a kind of chicken noodle soup that distinguishes itself from other Filipino variations by the type of egg noodles it uses.

The definitive Ilocano snack is empanada, a deep-fried meatpie made from orange-colored dough and a variety of fillings. The main filling for this cheap but filling treat is egg and bits of longganisa. Depending on the cook’s ingenuity, one can expect monggo, papaya, cabbage, squash or even glass noodles in the pie’s filling. For a most satisfying empanada experience, sprinkle generous amounts of local vinegar with every bite and order ice-cold soda to wash it down. The best place for these meatpies is the town plaza foodcourt in Batac.

Rice cakes like sapin-sapin and bibingka are sold throughout the province. The most popular of these is tupig, which is made from diket, coconut milk or gata and molasses. Shredded matured coconut and sesame seeds are added for a crunchy texture. The mixture is then wrapped in banana leaves and roasted over charcoal. Other rice-based snacks are busi and patupat.

Sweets are eaten mainly by children but it’s not unusual to see these served as dessert. Homegrown sweets are mostly derivatives from sugarcane, one of the province’s main agricultural products in the provinces.

Molasses or tagapulot is used to make heavily sweetened calamansi juice. Farmers mix it with basi others just combine it with rice or use as a vital ingredient in other sweet delicacies such as tupig, dila-dila¬, tinubong and linapet. Barangay lang-ayan in Currimao specializes in the peculiar linga, which is made from sesame seeds cooked in tagapulot or sugarcane juice and made into candy bars.

Often sold in markets is the candied version of tagapulot called palinang. The process of making it is similar to tagapulot, the only difference being the addition of apog, a fine powder made from crushed crab shells, which allows the mixture to harden. Palinang is then poured into half-coconut shells. If one finds palinang a mouthful, smaller shaved bits called balikutsa are also sold in packs.

Some towns have their own specialty snacks. Pasuquin’s original Pasuquin Bakery is home to the Ilocos biscocho. The Filipino version of the biscocho is basically baked leftover bread. Dingras’ most famous backyard industry is cornick and other fruit snacks, the most famous of these are Nana Rosa Cornick.

Visitors can also look for Manang Lilia who also sells dried singkamas (a rootcrop) and kondol (a vegetable gourd).

The Ilocanos have also made snacks out of the unlikeliest ingredients. From bluegreen algae, they’ve whipped up the fried tabtaba cracklets. There are squash candy balls, squash milk candy, squash ice cream and their own version of leche flan using squash. The humble marungay leaves have also been used to make candy balls and even muffins.

But perhaps the most interesting snack of all are those pickled in vinegar or inartem. Visitors can pick from a number of artem, including mangga (mango) and balayang (banana). The most popular artem is karmay, a crunchy white fruit the size of a marble. From afar it looks like the ordinary sago drink found everywhere in the country because of dark-colored Iluko vinegar.


Market Day

Restaurants don’t have a monopoly on fine Ilocano cuisine. Markets are also an essential stopover. While every town has its own unique culinary find, choice meats, fish, vegetables and everything in between can be found in virtually every market in the province. Be sure to come early though as most vendors go home before lunch.

The market in San Nicolas is considered the best alternative to Laoag’s own bustling market. While most of the towns have particular set market days during the week, every day is a market day in San Nicolas.

Cap off Ilocano dining experience by heading for the market to buy bua. Chewing betel nut is a common traditional pastime all over the country. Betel nuts are chewed with gawed leaves. Among old folks, it is taken with a bit of lime and tobacco, which accounts for its reddish tinge and the tooth stains it leaves on the chewer. Oldtimers swear it’s good for the teeth and those trying it for the first time might get dizzy. Still, adventurous types can buy bua “packs” for 10 pesos apiece.

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