March 14, 2008

Eating our way through Ilocos

Our lunch in Saud Beach

Our lunch spread in Saud beach: kilawin, grilled eggplant, bagnet and grilled fish

The culinary delights in the Ilocos region were plentiful! Prior to our trip, I made a mental checklist of food to try while there: bagnet, the local empanada, royal bibingka, dinendeng, poqui-poqui, miki & gipang, pakbet and pakbet pizza. And so true to my travel form, I set off with wide-eyed and eager, with an open mind and an open stomach! With that list, we were 7 for 8, not bad at all. The only item we didn't try was the miki (and gipang), to my friend's horror. She grew up in Laoag and practically lived on the stuff. "WHAAATT!!! How could you not try miki?!?!", she cried. "I don't knoowww, please don't hurt me. It's just, there were so many things to try!"

And that was true. Aside from those I've mentioned, the north had some foodie surprises for us. There was the delightful (all native kakanins are delightful to me!) impaltaw - sticky rice wrapped in coconut leaves and cooked in molasses, the longganisa, the basi or sugarcane vinegar aka sukang Iloko, and the biscocho.

For our first taste of Ilocano cuisine, we made reservations at La Preciosa in Laoag. It was almost 2pm so we must have missed the lunch crowd. Starving by then, we were so excited to eat, not just any food but good Ilocano food! So we ordered what I will later declare as my top three Ilocano dishes (the Batac empanada is a snack and I will get to that later:) ): poqui-poqui , bagnet and dinengdeng.

Poqui-poqui is basically eggplant sauteed with tomatoes and egg. Being the eggplant-lover that I am, I knew I'd like this. What I didn't expect was to be this crazy over it! It's so simple yet so tasty in a very familiar sort of way. It's your smooshed tortang talong (eggplant omelette). Ahh, now I'm craving it again. Gotta try and make it soon!

Poqui-poqui, bagnet, & Dinengdeng

Poqui-poqui, bagnet, dinengdeng

I was just as excited to watch Joey dig into the golden-brown, succulent bagnet as I was to try it myself. Who better to share that fat-laden plate with than my dear pork-loving friend?! For the benefit of those who are not familiar with this deadly food, bagnet is deep-fried pork meat. Oh I know deep-fried pork meat, you might say - yes I'm assuming some of you might think that because I did- but this isn't your ordinary lechon kawali or other deep-fried pork. What makes the bagnet so mind-blowingly good is the cooking process involved. After the choice cuts are boiled, they are later submerged in hot oil to deep-fry until the skin starts to pop. When that happens, it's removed for about 20-25 minutes and then submerged again for more popping until it gets that perfectly crisp skin. And when you bite into a piece of bagnet, there's a mini-eplosion of fat that goes on inside your mouth, and if you don't clamp your mouth shut fast enough, you'll get cholesterol-filled drool on your chest. The bagnet is best eaten with a side of KBL (kamatis, bagoong, lasona - tomato/fish sauce/shallot), though it's pretty good with the sukang Iloko as well.

Thank God for the dinengdeng, which I like to believe flushed out all the bagnet cholesterol with it's goodness. Dinengdeng is a soup of green vegetables in a mild bagoong (fish sauce)broth. In it we recognized patani (lima beans), malunggay, sitaw (string beans), sigarilyas (winged beans) ampalaya (bitter gourd), okra and some fish. This was one of the tastiest clear soups I've ever had! And with each spoonful, I could actually taste the word 'healthy'. I couldn't get enough of it. I couldn't get enough of all three dishes really but normally I'll have one bowl of soup; usually before the main course, or sometimes with the main course. But all throughout our meal at La Preciosa, I ladled more of the dinengdeng into my bowl.

I had my first taste of the Pasuquin biscocho during that pleasant late night chat and snack sesson with our hosts at Sitio Remedios. It was the hard biscocho and we dipped it into our hot chocolates. It was good but had nothing on it's soft sister. Though I've already mentioned it here, it deserves another mention. These are soft rolls flavored with a tinge of anise. When you take a bite, you instantly detect a faint hint of a spice. But wait, youre not so sure, so you take another bite, hmmm yes, there it is almost, could it be?, another bite, mmmmm yes definitely, it's got to be. Ohh this is gooooooood...bite, chew chew chew....bite, chew chew chew. Oh do you wanna hear the other secret to this wonderbread? Lard. :)

Pasuquin Biscocho

Pasuquin biscocho

You can find two kinds of empanada up there in Ilocos, the paler Vigan empanada with its thinner crust/casing and the orange-y Batac or Laoag empanada with the thicker crust. We didn't try Vigan's version so I can't give you my opinion on that, but I can tell you this about the Batac empanada... IT ROCKS!! Omilord, it was fantastic! And even more so when doused with the sukang iloko. While at the motocross that morning, I told Gani I wanted to finally try the empanada from the stall there, he said no. He was taking us to his hometown of Batac for the best empanadas in the world so just wait he says. Fair enough, I thought. Besides being Gani's home, Batac is also the birthplace of former Pres. Marcos. We never made it back there in time to enter his old house, but that was ok. It was the empanadas we were after!

The Batac empanada is made with rice flour which is stuffed with grated papaya and monggo (mung bean) sauteed with garlic, then topped with egg and longganisa before it's sealed and deep-fried to a crunch. Gani took us to the plaza where stall after stall offered these half-moon treats alongside other favorites like kwek-kwek (deep-fried battered quail eggs), balut, hotdogs, longganisa etc. It seemed like half the town was there that evening, enjoying a light snack before dinner, or maybe this was dinner for them.

We followed Gani to the last stall, to D'Original Glory's Empanada; the very first empanadahan. There are apparently many variations on offer: special, ordinary, jumbo, double special, special eggless, special w/o monggo, with a soft or hard egg (I preferred it soft) and the price ranges from P25 ($0.65) to P42 ($1). For P7 ($0.15) you can order just the crust to munch on which is very tasty on its own, better than some of the tortilla chips out there. I had two empanadas, it was too good to stop at one. If we didn't have dinner waiting for us back at the resort, I would have easily had another.

Batac Empanada

Making the empanada, with soft egg (middle photo) and hard egg (right)

I enjoy a good pinakbet so I was very intrigued when I first heard about pinakbet pizza. So when I saw it on the menu of Cafe Leona in Vigan, I had to order it. It looked just as I had imagined it would look, and it actually tasted okay. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but I can see how it can be quite good with some slight tweaking. The crust was thin and crispy so they just needed to work on the bitterness factor maybe and taking the saltiness down a notch and we would have a decent take on Ilocano fusion. However, I still prefer my pinakbet with a nice bowl of steamed rice.

Practically every region in the Philippines has it's own specialty longganisa. The ones we had for breakfast every morning here was excellent, quite lean and very garlicky and peppery. The combination of the longganisa with sinangag (garlic fried rice), fried egg and sukang iloko made this breakfast-loving person very very happy!

What makes the sukang iloko unique is that it is a byproduct of basi, or sugarcane wine. When basi is exposed and left to sour, what you get is a nice dark - almost black- pungent vinegar. We bought litres of the stuff from the roadside when we bought our salt, garlic and shallots. They gave us some trouble at the airport because they weren't packed very well - so if you're flying home instead of driving, make sure the vinegar is properly sealed and packed. They will also ask you to wrap a towel or something as thick around each bottle to absorb any spillage.

Pinakbet, Sukang Iloko and Vigan Longganisa

pinakbet pizza, sukang iloko, Ilocos longganiza

We asked Gani to take us to the San Nicolas market where I had read about the mountains of bagnet on display. It was a clean wet market with rows and rows of vibrantly-hued vegetables and fruits. At the end is where you'll find it. A separate room for the bagnet and longganisa. Lots of them piled high underneath ropes of longganisa. He also took us to the Batac market for dry goods such as abel table runners, placemats and table napkins. Here I bought Nana Meng's chichacorn in bbq and cheese flavors (they had run out of the garlic flavor) as pasalubong for the people at work.

Market food

Top: Nana Meng's chichacorn, dried miki noodles, squash flowers
Bottom: longganiza, bagnet, pokpoklo

And this brings my Ilocos series to an end. Thanks to my travel companions and our wonderful hosts and guide, I went home enriched and enlightened and with a box full of goodies that allowed me to savor the experience long after we touched down back home. :)

For more about Ilocano food, visit Mike's post and Joey's posts here and here. :) And for even more lively posts and pictures about our weekend, check out Joey's series as well!

La Preciosa, Rizal St., Laoag
Tel. (+6377) 777.5130/773.1162/773.2159

Saud Beach Resort, Pagudpud
Tel. (+632)921.2856/928.9853


joey said...

Right now I am craving for all the food we had that my head is spinning! Reading this I could almost taste them...almost!

ScroochChronicles said...

I'm part Ilocano and grew up eating mostly Ilocano food. That dinengdeng looks absolutely yummy. We usually add alocon (that worm-like veggie) if in season. Patani, we used to prepare that guisado with shrimps then we'd mash the whole thing and it would be like a liquidy mashed potato but really good.

From our part of Ilocandia we were partial to grilled fish for our dishes rather than bagnet. But just looking at those chunks of pork makes me want to eat my way to Ilocos too :)

tutubi philippines said...

toured ilocandia way back 2003 ( i think) wish to go back and explore other places. wala pa yung bangui windmills that time

christine said...

Me too when I was writing the post, Jo! That was some great food we had up there! :)

Hi Cookie! :) I didn't know you were part Ilocano. I've never heard of alocon, I wonder now if that was in our dinengdeng.

It's worth going back for those windmills, Tutubi. They're pretty amazing! :)

nina said...

This entry is evil!

Hmp, makapunta nga sa Lung Center Market on Sunday to buy bagnet.

village mama said...

I'm going to eat my way through my computer screen until I get to everything you've photographed so vividly!

princess_dyanie said...

Waaah! I miss Ilocano food! :)

christine said...

Haha have fun at the market, Nina, and enjoy the bagnet! :)

Village mama, be careful! I don't want to be responsible for any broken teeth. This post has already been called evil, I didn't realize it would get such reactions! :)

Aww Dyanie, maybe you can join village mama? Help yourself! :)

oggi said...

It's a bad idea to read this post right after eating my breakfast... I'm hungry again!:)

christine said...

Haha you can always eat again and call it brunch. Doesn't matter if you already had breakfast. :)

Fae @ United Soccer Conference said...

That bagnet looks heartstopping! I miss the empanada. I love that there are now direct flights to laoag.