Yummy Ilocos Sur Cuisine » Manila Bulletin Lifestyle

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By Dr. Jaime C. Laya

My acquaintance with Ilocano food was gradual.  My Ilocano father was outnumbered in our Tagalog household and I grew up suspicious over unknowns like pinakbet. I vaguely knew gulaman was seaweed but my eldest was already doing track-and-field when I encountered ararusip, fresh seaweed that looks and pops like little green grapes. Even yummier was theb bagnét my GI (Genuine Ilocano) brother-in-law occasionally sent, although it puzzled my Bicolana cook. And it was at Salcedo Saturday Market that I had my first empanada, crunchy frying-pan-hot pastry filled with egg, green papaya slices, and Vigan longganisa.

Now the unexplored world is tantalizingly glimpsed in a marvelous book, Naimas! The Food Heritage of Ilocos Sur by Deogracias Victor B. Savellano and Heny Sison, photographs by Neil Oshima.

The Best Street Food fresh-cooked empanada on a Vigan street (photos by Neil Oshima)

There’s a chapter per town. Santa Lucia is introduced, “An Ilocano never met a goat he didn’t like” and proceeds to describe how a goat becomes dinardaraan (lean meat and blood); kilawín (meat, skin, and bile or papait); kaldereta (ribs); papaitan and sinanglao (entrails); angár or nilagà (head and feet); and soup (internal organs initially grilled). Only the meeeee is lost.  It’s enough to make you vegetarian.

Bagnét is “the object of … cholesterol-laden dreams … so oil-rich, fat-filled, and unremarkable-looking … but crunchy, succulent … glorious.”  It’s the star of my paternal hometown, Narvacán, explaining why chicharon seems encoded in my DNA.

Chicken, duck, and quail eggs are ho-hum. So are crab (alimañgo, alimasag, talangkâ) and fish roe (bihud). Europeans have bottarga; the US has shad roe and salmon eggs (red caviar); the rich and famous have sturgeon eggs (black caviar).  But ant eggs?  Try itlog ti abuos at Nagbukel, red ant pupae jabbed from nests up in fruit trees then dried or promptly sautéed or cooked in banana leaves.

Included are recipes of dishes that convey “Ilocos Sur character and spirit,” using veggies (squash, banana blossom, chili, ampalaya, okra, patola, string beans, malunggay, eggplant), seafood, meat (chicken, pork, beef, and goat), and miscellany like eel and frog. Rice, kondol (winter melon), cassava, saba bananas, and coconut go into desserts. Bile and bitter juice from grass-eating animals’ digestive tracts flavor certain dishes. Bagoong is the universal ingredient.

Pinakbet, quintessential Ilocano dish, is a mélange of vegetables steamed or sautéed with shrimp or pork. Baradibud is a stew of vegetables in sweet potato broth. Dinengdeng is a medley of boiled vegetables with grilled or fried fish added. Eggplants, onions, and tomatoes go into poque-poque (in Tagalog, the equivalent of pus-y pus-y).  Pochero Ilocos Sur style has saba, white beans, Baguio beans, and cabbage. Like sisig, ladek is made from pork face and head scraps. Sapsapuriket is chicken cooked in its own blood.

Two items are rooted in ritual. Tapuey or tapey is a “mystical potion” conjured from balatinao, a red rice, by a master, alone and in silence.  For pinikpikan, a chicken is beaten for hours with a stick until it turns black with coagulated blood. I like tapey but I’ll pass the pinikpikan. I’m for the fowl.

Notes:  (a) The authors are Deogracias Victor B. Savellano described as foodie and organic farmer and celebrity chef Heny Sison. Naimas is Ilocano for “yummy” or “delicious.”  Award-winning photographer Neil Oshima took the evocative photographs; and (b) Childless couples, BTW, trek to Santa Lucia where the goat was dispatched, to pray for relief.  I vouch for the patrona’s clout.  A plea to her delivered precisely nine months later, our long-awaited son Jamesy, a Capricorn too.

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