Holiday Dishes with Ilocano Flavors

 Pork Bagnet from Cafe Leona, Vigan (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

Pork Bagnet from Cafe Leona, Vigan (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

The holidays give me happy food memories. I used to watch my late father-in-law dip crisp, chunky pieces of pork bagnet, the Ilocano lechon kawali, into fish bagoong (salty fermented fish dip) or else spicy sukang Iloko, vinegar filled with siling labuyo (bird's eye chilies). Papa liked bagnet this way. When he offered me some, I filled a plate with crisp bagnet, fish bagoong on top and paired it with white rice. It was the Ilocano side of my father-in-law that made me love bagnet. These all came back to me when we visited Vigan recently.

It was mid-November; Vigan City was hot and humid. The sun shone brighter and the temperature was scorching. Quickly, beads of perspiration trickled down my forehead.

Around Vigan these were on the restaurant menus: bagnet, daing na bangus (milkfish), Vigan longaniza and pinakbet (vegetable stew). Buridibod were malunggay (moringa) stems and native gourd simmered in fish bagoong. Sinanglaw meant beef innards, tendons, ox face and bile with hints of sour flavors from fresh, under-ripe tamarinds. There were even modernized entrees like pinakbet pizza and tocino pizza.

Pasalubong suggestions from friends urged us to bring back robust-flavored, tangy Vigan longanizas (cured pork sausages) and garlicky cornick (fried corn kernels), which came in adobo and spicy flavors.

Ilocano food has strong, sharp flavors and vivid colors -- all combined make for a palatable presentation at the table. The dry, arid region is well known for the most potent garlic grown and premium vinegar produced.

During the President Elpidio Quirino 125th Commemorative Events, a vast spread was served by the Vigan townsfolk to our hungry family. There was Ilocano biko rich and thick with dark sticky rice grains cooked stove top, served on a large bilao lined with banana leaves and topped with latik (sweet coconut). Also laid out were festively wrapped barquillos sweets with coconut and the legendary Vigan empanada, crisp, thin half-circle wrappers stuffed with pork, eggs and vegetables.

 Biko (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

Biko (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

 Barquillos with coconut (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

Barquillos with coconut (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

For a deeper perspective on Ilocano food, I asked our aunt Atty. Aleli Angela G. Quirino. She gave a descriptive list of what the family liked, favorites of the late Quirino brothers Ernesto, Elpidio, Eliseo, Antonio and their sister, Rosa.

For vegetables there is Ar-arosep and agar-agar, fresh seaweed served with tomatoes. The latter looks like hairy green worms but were a favorite of our granduncle, Judge Antonio Quirino.

Diningding (pronounced dinengdeng in true Ilocano style) was Lolo Antonio's daily dose of vegetables. It has sitaw (long green beans), talbos ng kalabasa (squash leaves), sigarilyas (winged beans) and eggplant, all boiled with fish bagoong.

Pancit musico is soup served to visiting musical bands. Boiled with chicken and pork, the soup has Spanish chorizos, Chinese ham, shrimps and flour noodles. Achuete (annatto), garlic and kinchay (Chinese parsley) are sprinkled on top.

Seafood, like deep fried hito (catfish), is served with the proverbial KBL kamatis bagoong isda-lasona (tomato-fish sauce relish).

Dinaldalem is the pork dish higado or igado that non-Ilocanos are familiar with. Parts of the pig, like pork liver and lampay (innards), are used. The liver should be marinated in vinegar before cooking.

Pipian is a stew using pasotes (epazote), a Mexican herb that grows only in Vigan. The pasotes go back to the galleon trade in the 16th century. Our family likes pipian, as a chicken and pork stew in tomato sauce, achuete, ground rice and peanuts, herbs and seasonings.

 Pipian with sauce (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

Pipian with sauce (Photo by Elizabeth Ann Quirino)

Dessert is bibingka, Ilocano-style, made of galapong (ground sticky rice), eggs, sugar, butter and coconut. It is the size of a large, flat muffin encased in banana leaf.

Finally, there is buko sherbet. Shredded coconut meat and milk are poured into plastic bags, frozen and crushed into a sherbet before serving.

When I asked about the holidays, a cousin, Pacita Adea D’Arcy told us how her mama cooked the poqui-poqui, an eggplant dish traditionally served on Christmas Day.

Our Aunt Lila fondly said of the holidays: "It's the food memories we remember and appreciate always."

See recipe for poqui-poqui in this week’s Happy Home Cook.


 Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.


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