Abra food for me is palileng, nakamatisan nga bunolan, pinakbet nga nasagpawan ti chicharron, dried lentils nga naidengdeng nga nasagpawan ti dried palileng, lechon stuffed with karimbuaya, and a lot more.
Abra’s climate is divided into the dry season from November to May, and the wet season for the rest of the year.
Summer is the time for abuos or the eggs of big, red ants. Gathered by poking a hole through their treetop nests the abuos sauteed with garlic, onions and lowland tomatoes, have a rich and tangy taste and is a rare delicacy.
The kampa is a very rare fish said to be found only in Abra River. It abounds during the summer, especially in the municipality of Lagayan. Its white flesh and delicate flavor is at its best when cooked simply a la sinigang (sour soup) with just pias or barusbus (young tamarind leaves) and salt to taste.
Similar to another river fish called bunog in Ilocano or bunolan in Penarrubia Itneg but bigger in size, the kampa’s current price at the Bangued public market is P1,500 ($37)/kilo due to its tasty flesh and rarity, according to Agnes Pagtailan, who maintains a popular turo-turo (informal eatery) for students and the neighborhood of Zone 4, Bangued.
Though not as rare as the kampa, hence cheaper and more readily available, the bunog with its sturdier taste can be cooked in various ways like with sukang iloko (sugarcane vinegar) and salt, or sinigang with barusbus or simply deep fried. When dried it is a very healthy addition to Abra’s version of dinengdeng.
Most fish sold in Bangued comes from sur-surong or upriver from the upland municipalities of Abra. They are armed with a fin-like suction on their necks, enabling them to cling to the rocks and survive the strong currents of the Abra River.
Still smaller than the bunog and kampa, is the palileng, which when cooked with just vinegar and salt with a very minimum amount of water, and eaten with steaming rice, banishes the need for meat.
But I will always associate palileng with a lentil dish my grandmother Claudia used to cook. She used to cook the dried palileng (one to two inches long) with dried and ground lentils, little lowland native tomatoes, small onions (if available) and salt in boiling water in an earthen pot. Again, this dish is best eaten with steaming hot rice. Simple.
Summer in Abra is not complete for little boys and girls and even grown-ups without spending at least a day in the farm to eat cascaron.
Cascaron comes with molasses production. After the sugarcane is gathered, the tedious, dizzying and time-consuming going round-and-round of the carabao to move the wooden contraption that squeezes its juice follows. Then the juice is boiled in very high heat inside humongous vats called siliasi.
When the juice has turned a brown and sticky tagapulot (molasses), the malagkit (sticky rice) prepared earlier and shaped into small balls with coconut and sesame seeds, is poured into the vat. Once the balls float, they are cooked. They are retrieved with a contraption made out of a long bamboo pole with a roughly woven linaga or basket-like container at the end.
Another well-known Abra delicacy comes with the earthy and musky smell of May, when the first rain showers come after a very dry and hot summer. The heady perfume heralds the arrival of the wet season and the abal-abal or ab-ableng in Itneg and ararawan, a bug in the fields.
The abal-abal looks like a June beetle but is darker. It is gathered during the first rains between May and June along the river banks (ig-igid ti waig) at dusk when they fly out of the sandy soil. A whole community of abal-abal hunters come out armed with nets and other proven contraptions. Some even believe that putting pomade on the hair attracts the abal-abal, making it easier to just pick them (eeew!). The abal-abal and ararawan are cooked the same way, with vinegar and a little salt to taste kinirog style.
The Spanish influence in Abra is seen in the love for the cholesterol-rich lechon. The lechon process involves the whole pig/piglet, chicken, or cow being slowly roasted over charcoal. This day long and ardous method of roasting leaves a crispy skin and very moist meat inside. It was originally introduced to the Philippines as part of Spanish cuisine and can be found in many Hispanic countries. Leche means milk in Spanish, and lechon originally meant suckling pig.
But in Abra, it is lechon with a tangy twist. As far as I know, it is only in Abra that the lechon is stuffed with an herb called karimbuaya or Euphorbia neriflolia, or soro-soro in Tagalog, hedge euphorbia in English. It is a cactus-like plant with fleshy, oblong leaves.
For the lechon stuffing, the thinly sliced leaves of the karimbuaya is seasoned with plenty of chopped garlic, salt and pepper, then mashed and mixed by hand to bring out the zesty-tangy-garlicky-spicy smell. It is then stuffed inside the hollow stomach of the pig before the actual roasting. This permeates the whole pig with the strong flavors of the herb-stuffing and invites the neighbors far and wide with the mouth-watering smell.
Whether roasted the traditional way outside the house in the open, or as is customary now in Abra where the lechon is roasted in the big ovens of the pagbibingkaan (rice cake shop), no lechon be it suckling pig or chicken, is complete without the karimbuaya stuffing. It removes the umay (unctuousness). Instead of the liver sauce loved in other provinces, Abrenians prefer to eat their lechon with the karimbuaya stuffing and kamatis-bagoong-lasona or bagoong with kalamansi/perres. Sinful isn’t it?
Even the Abrenian version of the ilokano bagnet or lechon kawali (deep-fried pork) in Tagalog has a new twist. Abrenians know it as “chicharron.” According to Manang Agnes, “In the ilocos, as far as I know, they deep fry their bagnet only once. In Abra, we do it twice, iparutok mi.” Hence, the crispy skin, a treat Abrenians love. Abra’s chicharron goes well with pinakbet, done the ilokano way, or if freshly chicharroned, with KBL or again with bagoong and perres with steaming rice.
Lightnings and Mushrooms
Rainy season: August—uong tao, uong saba, (mushroom) cooked adobo-style with sukang iloko from sugarcane fermented with herbs with wild ampalaya (bitter melon) leaves. In Penarrubia, old folks believe lightnings bring the mushrooms.
My grandmothers would always say “agkimkimat agpatubo ta uong,” whenever I get afraid of the lightnings. And true enough, early in the morning the next day an uncle or a lolo (grandpa) will bring home mushrooms they chanced upon the farm or well known spots.
People have their own established “secret” wild mushroom spots. Men and women wake up early armed with flashlights, or in the old days a tin lamp fueled with carburo (carbide). Sharp eyes can distinguish the dark brown umbrella-shaped dome of the mushrooms from the dead leaves.
When I was seven my grandmother and once I chanced upon a whole area full of mushrooms (uuong ti saba) smaller than uong ti tao, in bamboo grove one rainy August. I had so much fun gathering, cleaning, and cooking them under the tutelage of my grandmother. I felt so proud and grown-up.
For most Abrenians a must padala (gift) for relatives working and living abroad are the wild mushrooms (uong tao) cooked adobo-style with sukang Iloko, a pinch of salt and a dash of ground pepper, lovingly packed and sealed in recycled bottles. A of bottle of uong, for Abrenians abroad, is like partaking of all the flavors and memories of their hometowns packed in a recycled glass bottle.
Laarni Sibayan-Ilagan is a Tingguian from Penarrubia, Abra, and proud mom to Sam-ang Nicolas (14) and Talek Jose (10). She is now a resident of Baguio City.