But my early research on Ilocano cuisine was cooked quite near to our Metro Manila home, at houses of friends.
Juliet Lazo Rivera of Vigan made miki for me, the quintessential noodle soup of the Ilocos. There was boiling broth in a caldero (pot) that contained a rich mixture of chopped shrimps, beef and chicken flavored with juice from crushed chicken bones and bagoong isda (fish paste), then colored by achuete (annatto). She added homemade noodles that thickened the soup and then kutsay leaves (garlic chives) for color and aroma.
Juliet’s househelp told me that in her hometown of Batac, fiestas would always have this hearty soup eaten with “tasty” (pan Amerikano or sliced bread).
Dinendeng was also demonstrated, a very simple vegetable dish carrying so many secrets. Juliet showed me how the eggplants were first skinned then sliced into thin strips. Ilocanos say any available vegetable will be thrown in next like patola, bataw, and habichuelas (sponge gourd, lima beans, Baguio beans). What was important, Juliet said, was not to cover the dinendeng while cooking to preserve the color of the vegetables and to prevent overcooking. Then there’s the bagoong of fermented munamon (dilis, anchovy), placed into the water and boiled. Cubed camote (sweet potato) is added for its sweet taste. Simple food with a lot of flavor and rather healthy. Up north, dinendeng is breakfast food.
Another version of dinendeng was cooked for me by Terry Antiporda, invited by good friend Baby de la Cruz. Malunggay pods were used, my first time to know that those elongated, slim, tamarind-like pods were edible. Terry advised that the bagoong isda be strained first then boiled for some time to take away the fishy taste. The malunggay pods also have to be boiled for some ten minutes because they take a long time to cook. Properly done, the pods will have a sweetish taste to them.
Terry also cooked the Ilocano version of batchoy called yusi. Pieces of pork tenderloin, liver and other innards were put in the broth after which kutsay leaves were added for color and aroma. It would not be yusi, however, without the gamet, a dark seaweed similar to the Japanese nori used to wrap sushi.
When I had the chance to finally go to Ilocos Sur, it was Gloria Castillo, the cook at Vigan’s Quema house (home of the labor activist and founder of the Aglipay Church, Isabelo de los Reyes), who made the tastiest soup I ever had. The main ingredients were shells, as small as rice grains, called ngarosangis. They were boiled, the flavors carried by the broth and the shells discarded without being opened because that was impossible to do.
Breakfast soups were tried in Ilocos Norte, that is, after the usual breakfast of pan de sal and butter, biscocho from Pasuquin, empanada from Batac, and tupig or suman malagkit from Paoay that we had at Sitio Remedios in Currimao, the beautiful resort owned by Dr. Joven Cuanang who is from Batac.
At Dawang Restaurant in San Nicolas town we had pinapaitan, which is beef innards with the bile, the bitter taste that Ilocanos loved to be poured in; and the pork ribs laoya that is cooked as sinigang soured with tomatoes instead of tamarind.
Cooking on the stove was igado. It later proved to be the best one we had in Ilocos Norte. It was drier but also had a bit of the oil released by cooking, a sign that it was done slowly and properly.
We also had the Dawang specialty dinardaraan or dinuguan. It is different because the pork innards, like that part of the intestine called chicharon bulaklak, are fried crisp before being added to the bloody stew.
There was insarabasab as well, pork loin or shoulder butt (kasim) marinated in calamansi, garlic, and salt then grilled over an open fire.
As you can imagine, we had the whole menu including imbaliktad, beef with bile that got its name from the act of turning over the meat after one side had been boiled.
So we had our breakfasts at restaurants and by the beach. But the one that was full of local color was at Dayo, the Sunday livestock market in Batac.
Breakfast was in a tent a few meters away from the main trading area. Nearby, pots were boiling, pans were stewing and several plates used by so many diners were being washed.
Papaitan was the favored dish, the smell of bile contributing to the earthy ambience. Again dinardaraan and igado were there.
I had my first taste of kalabaw kilawin, raw slices of carabao meat with garlic, onions, and spring onions strewn on top. A bit of sukang Iloko was poured over it.
The Ilocos vinegar accompanied almost everything we ate. This dark product of sugarcane that is sometimes likened to balsamic (though I think it is even better than the Italian vinegar) is probably why Ilocano cooking is so exceptional.
The other fine treat for Ilocanos is gamet, seaweed processed into black sheets. Every sheet costs an arm and a leg so, not surprisingly, Ilocanos use it sparingly, adding it to scrambled eggs the way the French do with truffles, to flavor and also to upgrade an ordinary dish. A sheet of gamet, the size of a short bond paper sheet, cost P600 years ago.
Gamet is gathered by the Ilocos Norte sea where the rocks are constantly battered by high waves from September to November, especially windy days, the best time to gather the seaweed.
I was shown the rocks at the back of a beach house in Burgos, Ilocos Norte and saw the perilous setting for its gathering. To emphasize just how risky it was, we were told the story of a couple who were swept away by the waves a month before.
On the Burgos table were other kinds of seaweed but, among them, gamet is still considered the “black gold.” And it was waiting to be cooked by the old women who knew best how to. The gamet we tasted must have been freshly dried so it just smelled slightly of the sea. We were served the black seaweed sheets grilled for a few moments. They were deliciously crisp.
Just like black truffles, gamet is cut into strips and then mixed with eggs to make omelet. At the table of the mayor, gamet was cooked together with ipon (larval goby, also called hipon in Northern Mindanao). The ipon looked like but is different from dulong (Lacustrine goby) and is way more expensive.
We had an iodine-rich dinner that included other seaweed like curly kulot and the branch-like salingup. Those were grilled in banana leaves as well.
We also had curacha, a crab that we mistakenly thought existed only south of the country, in Zamboanga. But there they were, up north in Ilocos Norte, the fresh meat embedded in a labyrinth of crevices.
Looking at how much gamet and ipon we were served, I thought that dinner must have been so expensive. But our hosts spared no expense to share their pride in a product they love and are proud of.
For the tourists, everyday Iloko cooking can be had at the many restaurants that serve them.
In Laoag, a more updated take on provincial cooking was at Saramsam Café of Sammy Blas. We had lechon stuffed with aromatic oregano and the local basil. The sauce had liver mixed in with a bit of pork blood. There was the insarabasab, roasted pork cut seasoned with vinegar, salt, and pepper. The pakbet vegetables were arranged neatly with bagnet pieces. Kinilaw of fish was borrowed from the way Visayans do it.
Blas had just come from the farm, and introduced us to the wild mushrooms—the uong—a rare treat, that are simply sautéed. And to the ipon, the Ilocano small fish delicacy that was made into lumpia instead of the usual kilawin or torta. We had traditional miki that did not look hodgepodge, half an egg peeping out of the noodle soup arranged neatly in each bowl. The bibingka with crushed peanuts on top was served in neat wedges.
Another visit gave the opportunity to try something else on the Saramsam menu. The dinardaraan, the Ilocano dinuguan or blood stew looked inviting. The chicharon bulaklak pieces (part of a pig’s alimentary track, deep-fried) made this dish rich and special. It was also in the pizza section of the menu but then we thought, why not pinakbet pizza?
Pizza seemed to be always present in many places in Ilocos. My first encounter with pinakbet pizza years ago was at Herencia Café in Paoay, a delightful little place with a view of the ancient Paoay Church. It was different, yes. But I had reservations as to whether that was good for traditional cooking. The idea caught on though, and more restaurants now serve the pizza. It is also offered in one bakery in Laoag.
Think about it. Tomatoes are important to both Italian and Ilocano cooking. Tomatoes form the base of pizza and whatever toppings are used say something of the place, the ingredients and cooking of the people.
In Ilocos Sur, Chef Nick Rodriguez of Bistro Candon introduced us to another pizza with a local twist. It had the Ilocos eggplant omelet with the outrageous name (at least to non-Ilocanos) of poque-poque. Pieces of bagnet were strewn on top, crisp pork chunks that are boiled, dried, fried, and refried.
On the table, Rodriguez’s staff brought in dish after dish. The pinakbet had green chili and he said it was siling duwag. It was the only time I knew the name of this un-hot chili cooked as adobo at Saramsam. For first-timers it can be exciting to eat something that seems forbidden and then to discover that it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to—taste hot because it’s supposed to be chili.
Chef Nick Rodriguez had food good for triple the number of us who were there. Apart from the pakbet and the pizza, we had a huge chaffing dish of pochero, beef shin in tomato sauce with cabbage among the vegetables and potatoes. There was sinanglaw, boiled beef innards sliced, served as soup, and flavored with salt and Iloco vinegar. There was imbaliktad, thinly sliced beef with the marrow of its spine boiled with onions and ginger with papait (bile) poured in, its name from the mixture being turned after one side is cooked. Slices of bagnet (deep-fried pork) were also served.
I do remember an early visit for lunch at Mom’s Country Kitchen run by Eya Cabaños, a busy caterer who squeezed our meal into her schedule. While her catering includes very continental dishes like roast beef, she let her guests enjoy Ilocano cooking including small empanadas cooked on site.
She served us adobo, kilawing baboy (vinegar-cured boiled pork) and seashell soup. But Eya’s spread emphasized Ilocos vegetables. She had a pakbet of fresh garlic. And she made several salads of talbos ng upo (sprouts of fuzzy gourd); rabong (bamboo shoots); katuday or katuray flowers and green beans. What caught my eye was the balayba, a freshwater plant, because of its other name “I shall return.” Eya explained that it was a vegetable that could not be digested by the body so it looked exactly the same when expelled.
La Preciosa in Laoag is in a house converted to a restaurant. Owner Pam Arragoza kept the restaurant open when we arrived on the late-night flight. She served the mainstay Ilocos dishes. A year later we found ourselves again at the restaurant, a meal that included miki, freshly done noodles in achuete-colored soup. There was insarabasab and igado, pork liver and other innards mixed with guisantes or green peas.
Lunch before leaving Ilocos was at Shyne’s Foodhaus (F.R. Castro, Laoag) where we had insarabasab cooked medium rare the way it should be according to our Laoag guide, Jane Gaspar, whose family owns the place. We tasted the family’s siniwsiwan, native chicken cut up into small pieces, boiled with bile and blood and some ginger, then spiked with siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili) and lots of sili leaves. We thought that was our very last dish before flying off but Sam Blas gave us a peek at where he will relocate Saramsam, right where his pensione, Balay da Blas, is (Giron St.). He had a full merienda waiting. Unfortunately, we only had space for the paridosdos or guinataang halo-halo with peanuts.
In another part of the Ilocos region, in La Union to be exact, one visit was like a homecoming for my family. My father is from the town of Bauang and we spent some summers and All Souls Day there. This time Mary Jane Ortega, former mayor of the city and wife of La Union congressman Victor Ortega, had a long table ready for this sort of family get-together.
Dishes were a combination of traditional Ilocano, the family recipes, and what can be found in the city market that was right across the street from the Ortega house.
There was kilawing kambing (goat skin and meat mixed with seasoned vinegar); eggplant salad with the risqué name of poque-poque; and the quintessential vegetable stew, dinendeng, which I was glad to see included malunggay pods (Moringa oleifera, drumstick), not always known to be edible outside of Ilocos. Of course, there had to be seaweed, the grape-like ar-arosep known as lato in the Visayas.
It was my first time to know that grilled pork, suggested to be the lean cut, is called pulpog in this area, served with pig’s blood sautéed with ginger and garlic.
Even if it was hot that day, the soup of oysters with sotanghon was a great welcome. The kare-kare was done perfectly, but Manang Suping’s arming (bagoong alamang, shrimp paste) made it even better. My father told me that at his family’s general store, they made the bagoong they sold there.
Crabs and shrimps are expected, almost always available in the market across the house. It was done in the simplest way—steamed, a good way.
At the lunch table was Denny Ortega, wife of Gov. Manuel Ortega, whose project is the cooking competition of the La Union Vibrant Women Inc. (LUVWI).
We tasted the competition entries at a dinner in the provincial capital. There were three dinendeng winners—one made with mani (peanut), another with malunggay, and the third with buko (young coconut)—all so good and quite creative.
One of the winning dishes was a soup made with dried espada (a variety of swordfish), gurguroman (gulaman, agar-agar), shredded coconut, milk, and dried malunggay.
Mary Jane also had for us chicharon, a specialty of the family of Daisy Sayangda-Olivar, mayor of Santol. It isn’t what one can call chicharon if you look at it, because the deep-fried pork rind has a coating of what looks like ketchup. Even with that, the chicharon is crispy and a bit sweetish.
It was the height of summer when we visited and the prospect of having halo-halo for merienda was welcome, indeed. Mary Jane then brought us to Halo-Halo de Iloko.
Xavier Mercado is the proprietor and he deconstructed the halo-halo for us. He uses ube (purple yam) from San Gabriel, nata de coco, corn, cornflakes, saba, yema cooked in pandan, gulaman cooked with buko juice (young coconut), and burisangsang (muscovado) as sweetener.
We should have been satisfied with the halo-halo but we were curious about what looked like huge pan de sal pieces. Mercado called it emparedados (Spanish for sandwiches), which turned out to be a fried bun with Vigan longanisa within.
Our La Union trip brought us further north to Luna, one of the municipalities, named after the Luna brothers, Antonio and Juan, whose family house is still there with only part of the brick fence. One of the specialties of the town is the Nacionales bibingka, rice cake like that found in Vigan though not as heavy. Owned by Rosita and Monsignor Nacionales, it’s made with cheese, eggs, milk, and sticky rice.
My son who loves Ilocano food has been to La Union but he can’t wait for me to bring him again to his grandfather’s home province and to the other Ilocos provinces. He knows he will sample the varied cuisine I tasted during my many sorties there to research and to holiday. When I do, I know I will feel my father’s pleasure in the appreciation of his region’s cuisine by both his grandson and his daughter.
From Country Cooking: Philippine Regional Cuisines by Michaela Fenix (Anvil Publishing Inc., 2014)
Micky Fenix writes the weekly column “Country Cooking” for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Her book on regional cuisine will be published this year.