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
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. :)
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.
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.
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. :)
La Preciosa, Rizal St., Laoag
Tel. (+6377) 777.5130/773.1162/773.2159
Saud Beach Resort, Pagudpud