Abra, in the North is home to the Itnegs and Tingguian cultural community known for their cotton weaving with frog embroidered designs. It is a rapidly vanishing cultural community largely to the vast denudation of its ancestral domains.
It is also home to part of the Ilocano nation, famed for its parsimonious though no less delicious cooking. Prof. Vic Torres writes about his culinary adventures in this part of the great Philippine North.
(A Small Adventure in Ilocano Food Culture)
Bitter is said to be the taste of the Ilocano palate. Probably because their lives were forged from the hardships of the mountain life. The patience of the Ilocano, however, has created a unique food culture from ingredients produced by the harsh highland climate and its rich soil.
My first taste of Ilocano cuisine started with what seemed to be the most common dish of that region to grace the Philippine table – pinakbet.
So far I had tasted pinakbet (or pakbet) cooked three ways. The only difference was that the ingredients used ranged the flavors from a plain meaty sauté to a fish-flavored salty.
The Tagalog pinakbet is oily because of the bits of fatty pork used for the sauté. Bagoong alamang is then added along with the usual ingredients of tomato, eggplant, ampalaya, okra and squash. This is the way my mother (a full-blooded Manileña) prepared it.
One of our maids before, a true-blue native from Abra, cooked two kinds of pinakbet : one made with bagoong isda and the other with patis. The latter was an alternative ingredient for diners who preferred a light, salty taste to the dish. It is also a safe substitute for those who are allergic to bagoong.
For a while, pinakbet seemed to be the only genuine Ilocano dish I was fated to taste in my lifetime as there are few (of which I have not visited) restaurants in Manila that served genuine Ilocano dishes. I hated traveling so that temporarily reduces my chances of visiting the Ilocos.
Until in 1995 when my wife Nikki, and I went on a trip to the North. Destination: Bangued, Abra.
This was a trip that had been planned for quite some time. I had been a father for a year now. Nikki was jobless but needed a break from the hassles of child-caring. And the baby had to be seen by her aunts and great-grandmother,
So, after much persuasion, I agreed to go to Abra. I must admit for an infrequent traveler, I was excited.
It took eight hours by car to reach Abra. Luckily, the traffic was still light. We left at four in the morning, Palm Sunday. Though it was the start of Holy Week, vacation from office work was still four days away. It was twilight when we arrived in Bangued.
Dinner at the house of Nikki’s grandmother was hurriedly-prepared dishes of nilagang baka, fried bangus and rice.
“How good is Ilocano fare in Abra?” I asked off-handedly. Manang Maribel (Nikki’s aunt) and Lola Esther (Nikki’s grandmother) were only glad to oblige in preparing Ilocano food for a “city boy.” I later discovered that Ilocano dishes were exotic enough that they had to wait for nature to “create” the ingredients. It was, as some food writers would describe it, frontier food.
There was hipon (pronounced “i-pon”) which was not the crustacean we are familiar with but a fish fry. They were no bigger than a pencil eraser. This species of fresh-water fish swims in large schools to the mouth of the Calaba River (one of the main waterways of the province) to the South China Sea in the first months of the year. The fishes change color from dark gray to white back again to gray during its migration to the sea and back to the river. It was during this transformation that fishermen anchored at the mouth of the river would lower fine-meshed nets and scoop up the yellowish-white fingerlings. These were then hauled to shore and spread out to dry. It is displayed in the market in small mounds and sold by the glass or evaporated milk can. Hipon turns a light brown when fried or a bright, orangey color when sautéed with onions and tomatoes. They have a buttery taste with just a tinge of fresh saltiness from the sea.
Another kind of fish was the palileng - a river fish sold skewered on a bamboo sticks. The number of fishes per stick depends on their sizes. There are usually four to eight pieces on a stick. Palilengs are roasted on an open fire until charred black and hard. It was a way of preserving the fish. Eaten plain, the flesh is tough and rubbery. Ilocanos prefer it cooked in a paksiw as the fish softens, bones and all, when prepared this way.
Bagnet is defined in the old Spanish-Iloko dictionaries as “something that is half-dried.” It also refers to the Ilocano dish of deep-fried hunks of pork similar to the Tagalog lechon kawali. Bagnet is so popular as an Ilocano dish that it is sold by the kilo side by side with the fresh meat stalls in the public market.
Preparing bagnet involves hanging and air-drying the meat thoroughly before it is deep-fried in oil. Water is splashed on the skin at the right moment to make it blister. Cooked to a crisp, the bagnet is then hung again to let the oil drip out. Storing is done with little fuss as it lasts a long time.
Sinanglaw is a dish made of cow innards cooked with ginger, pepper and papait (bile). The result is a stew richly-yellowed by the bile and fat. One sip of the broth lets loose a mixed bitter, meaty sweet, spicy flavor very much like the papaitan cooked with goat meat.
But the most unforgettable dish I had was the one served to us by Lola Esther. Nikki and I found her one day sitting at the dining table before a small plastic basin full of water. Settled at the bottom of the basin is what seemed to be a mound of soil and tree bark flecked with white specks of what looked like insect eggs. Floating on the water were dead ants. Hundreds of them.
“What is that?” Nikki asked.
“Abu-os.” Lola Esther replied. “Ant eggs.” She deftly scooped out a handful of dead ants and debris. “We will have it for dinner.”
Then, of course, there was dinengdeng. This is second only to being the common Ilocano dish to the pinakbet. Like the latter, dinengdeng shows the Ilocano genius in making do with the ingredients available to them. It is cooked with practically any green leafy vegetable that can be placed in the pot. Flavoring, such as bagoong isda, is added. The ingredients are then simmered together until cooked. My father-in-law likes this dish with bits of roasted fish like dalag for added flavor and aroma. The more roasted the fish, the better.
Novelist and National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose taught me a brief lesson in Ilocano food culture during a trip up north in 2001
Going back to Manila after an overnight stay in Ilocos Norte, we stopped at the town market in Sinait. Like almost all the small-town markets, the one in this part of Ilocos Norte was a low-roofed concreted space some distance away from the town plaza.
Jose pointed out the vegetable stalls. “You can identify the dishes in a place just by looking at the ingredients you can buy in the market. For Ilocanos, you can see the ingredients of pakbet almost everywhere.”
The produce were spaced out on mats and sheets of plastic sacks. There were piles of ampalaya and eggplants – the small kinds favored for stewing. Stalks of yellow squash flowers lay tied up in bundles. There were piles of red tomatoes; hunks of ginger root and bundles of red onions. There was a pungent smell of garlic – the strong-smelling kind that is grown in the Ilocos. Wreaths of this favored household spice hung from stalls where it is sold by the kilo.
A product sold on one side of the market was very conspicuous because of the stink it made in the place: bagoong. There were small barrels and pails of it sold side by side with bottles of golden-brown patis. Flies also buzzed heavily around the containers. One could not miss that side of the market – it stank to high heavens.
“Have you ever seen how bagoong is made?” Frankie asked me, “If you haven’t, don’t. You wouldn’t eat it once you saw how it’s done.”
There is one thing I noticed in the market: there were no meat stalls inside. All the fresh food were sold in an open space outside. Fish and meat were displayed on open boards. And like all Ilocano markets there was at least one stall selling bagnet. The meat hunks were literally stacked on top of each other.
What was unsettling for me about the place was the language barrier. Frankie was comfortable talking in Ilocano with his provincemates. It took only two words from me (magkano ito?) for the vendors to realize that they were dealing with an out-of-towner. One of them even mistook me for a Japanese. I decided to just shut up and let my companion do the talking.
He was soon shaking his head and laughing as we walked back to his car, carrying our bag of vegetables. “You stand out like a foreigner in an Ilocano market,” he said.
A fitting reminder on how one can still be an alien to his own country’s culture.