The Ilocos provinces [Pangasinan, La Union, Ilocos Sur, Abra (technically Cordillera Autonomous Region but Ilocos for our purpose) and Ilocos Norte] are known for the industry of its people, and the narrow strip of land between the mountains of the Cordilleras, and the South China sea from which they eke out a living. The terrain is unforgiving—rocky and unirrigated, sandy land; hot summers and severe cold seasons; limited crops. It is perhaps because of these conditions that Ilocanos became one of the early migrants—moving in as pioneers in Mindanao and practically every other province, as well as points abroad, beginning with Hawaii in 1906 as the first group of sugarcane workers.
The food is simple—honest Ilocano fare of abrao (assorted seasonal vegetables, typically malunggay, and that quintessentially Ilocano vegetable, saluyot, boiled in a bagoong and fish broth), pakbet, grilled and steamed fish and other seafood, seaweed salads garnished with sliced tomatoes, the sinful bagnet with accompanying KBL (kamatis, bagoong and lasona—sliced tomatoes and spring onions with fish sauce), dessert would consist of fresh fruits in season, and local rice cakes (tupig, patupat, linapet, dudol) and sesame seeds in molasses (linga), accompanied by coffee or native chocolate.
Occasionally, there would be more exotic fare—abuos—giant ants’ eggs gathered in the forest, gamet—the dark seaweed that the Japanese call nori, ipon—tiny fish in season during the cold months, very similar to dulong. There are also ordinary foods with unusual names—the breakfast fare called poki-poki (also poqui-poqui), an innocent omelet made of eggplant sautéed with garlic, onions, tomatoes, and eggs; and vegetables with racy names: kabatiti (Tagalog patola, the vegetable served with misua), utong (string beans) to name two.
Marunggay (malunggay to Tagalog speakers) deserves special mention for its versatility—the leaves are a staple for abrao, being available year round. The flowers are equally favored for salads, as are the tender fruit (called mara-utong as it resembles thin string beans), and the mature fruit.
The afternoon rainshowers and thunderstorms of the rainy months, bring yet another delicacy—the tasty uong, wild mushrooms that are found the day after the thunderstorms. Their delicate earthy flavor makes for a perfect abrao, or even more decadent, the adobo of pure uong flavored only with salt and garlic.
The freshwater fish called bukto, from the Bacarra river, was my grandfather’s personal favorite. He loved them cooked paksiw style, or what we call nilengta in Ilocano. Because the fish are small, and somewhat bony, it is even better to deep fry them to a crisp, and eat whole, bones and all. On rainy days, he would invariably request for balatong, mongo to you Tagalogs, usually with malunggay or ampalaya leaves, and talong strips. The Ilocano balatong is boiled, not guisado, but is less soupy than the Tagalog version. In the old days, grilled fish or boiled shrimps would be used for flavoring, but bagnet is becoming increasingly popular of late.
Bagnet is the Ilocano version of the lechon kawali—pork squares first boiled in a saline solution, air dried, then deep fried twice until they are crisp and golden. In the old days, the cooked bagnet was stored in burnay (stoneware jars) filled to the brim with the pork oil, which solidifies into lard as it cools. The lard was used to re-fry the pork when needed for flavoring vegetable dishes such as the pinakbet, or pancit. Lately, it has become a decadent dish on its own.
The Ilocano adobo and dinuguan are dry compared to the Tagalog or Pampango versions. This is probably done to make the food keep longer. Both use liberal amounts of vinegar, again to preserve the food for longer periods, the same principle used in making the Ilocos longanisa.
There is a wide range of rice and glutinous rice delicacies, from the familiar puto, kutsinta, tinupig, and the less well-known patupat, binagkat, linapet, and the totally exotic impaltao, incalti, dudol among many others. Patupat is boiled glutinous rice lightly flavored with salt (in some cases, pepper as well) and wrapped in banana leaves to a triangular shape. Binagkat is the Ilocano puto maya—boiled glutinous rice flavored with molasses and coconut oil. Linapet a sweet version of the patupat, also wrapped in banana leaves. The rare and sinful impaltao, a favorite of Ethel S. Timbol, is water soaked malagkit encased in pouches made of bamboo strips, which is later cooked in boiling sugar cane juice (bennal). It is an occasional treat, made only during the sugarcane harvest season. Incalti is the generic term used for the process of cooking and sweetening food items in sugarcane juice—balls of ground glutinous rice (larger versions of the Tagalog bilo-bilo) are the most common ingredient for incalti, but there are more unusual items used as well, such as the trunk of the male papaya. Dudol is a mixture of ground glutinous rice flour, water and sugarcane juice, that is laboriously mixed by hand as it cooks over a slow fire—reminiscent of the procedure for making haleya.
One of the Ilocano snack foods that has become popular lately is popped corn flavored with garlic—what is now known as “cornick” or “chichacorn.” It was developed many years ago in Paoay, and the Nana Rosa brand is the favorite among people in the know. The barrio that produces cornick has since branched out to other items—honey coated banana, camote and taro chips, with a variant of garlic flavored camote and taro chips.
Batac empanada and miki have become province-wide favorites, served in almost every town plaza. Empanada is garlic longanisa with grated green papaya or mashed mongo or togue (mongo sprouts), wrapped in annatto colored dough made of ground rice, and deep fried to a crisp. It is often served with a vinegar and garlic sauce. Miki is home made noodles in a thick, chicken-flavored broth, also colored with annatto, the special topped with bagnet cracklings.
Being a coastal province, Ilocos Norte is blessed with an abundance of the sea’s bounty—lapu-lapu, maya-maya, dorado, tanguigui, lobsters, curacha (or pitik, locally called kusimay), the more exotic sungayan (thick skinned black fish with a horn on its forehead, suitable for grilling) and ilek (with delicately flavored oily meat that is heavenly when grilled to perfection). Seaweeds are also abundant, from the common ar-arusip (lato to Visayans), to the indigenous pokpoklo, and gamet (what the Japanese call nori—used to wrap sushi).
The Ilocano is not a finicky eater, a fact attested to by his practice of flavoring boiled beef, carabao or goat sweetmeats with the bile and the juice of partially digested grass in the animal’s intestines—a dish variously called papaitan, sinanglao or paksiw in its many variations. He also eats the leaves and fruit of the parya (Tagalog ampalaya), favoring the small native variety that is especially bitter. Food critic and cultural researcher Doreen Fernandez noted this predilection for bitter food among the Ilocanos, saying that we understand the sweetness that follows after eating bitter food.
It is often said that we are what we eat. The foods of the northern provinces speak eloquently of the native qualities of the Ilocano—his famous thrift, the ability to make do and utilize all available resources, as well as his close affinity to the earth, and the rhythm of the changing seasons.