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Posts tagged ‘Longganisa’

Ilocos: A Lesson in History, Culture, and Cuisine

Every year, I manage to visit my parents’ hometowns in the Ilocos region. Fortunate enough to time it with official travels, but without the privilege of a private vehicle, I am compelled to take the long bus ride consisting of at least 7 hours on the road.
As in my youth, the road trip is part geography lesson, history and culture, and even a bit of a foodfest. I remember when my parents then would try to entertain us with everything they could think of – naps, food, folklore, stories from their own childhood. My Dad would speak of the old railroad that took him and his family to La Union during the evacuation from Manila in the early 1940s, the swamps in the Candaba area where he hid with fellow guerillas as they survived on Bulacan’s watermelons. It was during that time he contracted malaria and became a non-viable blood donor since. From Pampanga to Capas, Tarlac, he would point out some markers commemorating the infamous Death March. He had these horror stories of a big, black sow wearing wooden clogs, which blocked their bus during a night trip he took to Pangasinan when he was already in college, and this big tree by a mysterious bridge where many vehicular accidents happen.
Through it all, we unconsciously learned about the geography of Northern Luzon and even a bit of Philippine history without realizing it. I found out why some parts of Pampanga and Bulacan flood so easily during the rainy season and why there are so many migratory birds flocking to its rice fields at certain times of the year. Nowadays, not many people realize that this area is part of the great marshlands of Candaba. I understood why vast tracks of Tarlac are planted to sugarcane and the Ilocos region is confined mostly to cultivating tobacco. I also came to know that before Dagupan boomed into the provincial capital that it is now, before World War II, it was merely composed of marshes and numerous fishponds locals took their livelihood from.
And so I remember all that until now whenever I travel North. And I try to share that information with Toni since she’s from the eastern side of Northern Luzon. All she knows is the route from Bulacan to Nueva Ecija to Nueva Vizcaya to Isabela and then it’s already Cagayan Valley.
In late 2013, I literally took a tour of Ilocandia – four provinces in four days. While I had taken Toni to La Union and Baguio in 2012, it was such a whirlwind trip that it didn’t leave much of an impression on her. I always promised her we’d do it right the next time. And the complete travel experience to Ilocos includes partaking of the local cuisine wherever you can find it. And yes, Virginia (tobacco), there is more to Ilocos than our longganisa.
Although not much of an eater, I indulged Toni the usual travel fare on buses. Vendors climb aboard our bus offering sweet corn, pork chicharon, and gua(va)apple. From Dau, Pampanga to Tarlac City, assorted sweet treats such as pastillas and macapuno balls abound.
I used to say you just know what part of Ilocandia you’re in already by the kakanins being sold. Somewhere in the Ilocano portions of Tarlac and Pangasinan, one gets offered tupig. Known for its wrapping of elongated strips of banana leaves, it’s actually made from rice flour (malagkit), grated coconut, coconut milk and brown sugar roasted over a fire. On occasion, I encountered “special” versions of this grilled delight with peanut crumbs or sesame seeds for added flavor. Being the probinsyana that she is, Toni recognizes most of the ingredients even before I realize it.
In Ilocos Sur, the favorite is the gelatinous kalamay made from malagkit rice, coconut milk and that dark brown sugar in blocks known as panucha. Sweet and viscuous, it is similar to the popular tikoy of the Chinese. Oftentimes, it is contained in the bao or halved coconut shells much like the binagol of region 8. After my radio guesting in DZTP Radio Tirad Pass in Candon City, we were gifted by no less than their Mayor Singson with their famous Candon Calamay. Meanwhile, in Ilocos Norte, the tinubong is the kakanin of choice. Made from the same ingredients as the tupig, the main difference is that the malagkit, coconut milk, molasses, and grated coconut mixture is stuffed in bamboo tubes before being grilled over hot charcoals. To get to the tasty stuff inside, one must learn the trick of cracking open the bamboo tubes by hitting it against the ground or against a wall. Finally, how can anyone forget our legendary bibingka. Sticky and gelatinous like kalamay, it is now prepared with cheese grated over it. The “royal” version is extra soft and sticky that it actually melts in your mouth.
From my travels to nearby Asian countries, I observed that our kakanins is a cousin to many Indonesian and Malaysian fares of similar concoctions. I am not sure if it was just a matter of culture and common heritage, or the abundance and availability of the ingredients, but one thing for sure, this type of food is both filling and satisfying as an “energy” booster for all the hard work required under the hot Asian sun.
The secret also to enjoying the traditional cuisine of any locality is knowing exactly where to find it. (Remember that Dutch couple who toured the Philippines and complained about our food? Well, who would be stupid enough to ask for Vigan longganisa at a 7-11 store?!)
Any Vigan Heritage Tourist who did his/her background homework would know enough that the “plaza” is the place to be. While in the olden days the plaza held some political and religious significance to be the center of any township with its proximity to the parish church and the town hall, nowadays it maintains its reputation as the “it/eat” place.
And, it isn’t just about the “where”, but the “when”. Depending on what you want to eat, you also have to carefully “time” your gastronomic experience.
Arriving at dawn in Ilocos Sur, Toni didn’t want to lose any time at all and wanted to partake of the traditional Ilocano breakfast. So this early, while the plaza is already hustling and bustling, the morning offering is the “singalaw”. Appearing like the classic pinapaitan, this beef-based broth is served hot with cattle innards but without the bitterness. Instead, it is seasoned profusely with Sukang Iloko. For the faint of heart and un-adventurous palate, there is Jollibee, Chow King, and a few other fast food restaurants if you want to stay with your familiar comfort foods. Otherwise, go for the other Ilocano breakfast of Vigan longganisa and eggs with fried rice.
Already in the midst of the Heritage Village, we decided to visit some of the famous churches and museums before heading home to rest. While doing the Vigan tour, one can’t miss the St. Paul Cathedral and the Salcedo Plaza in front of the Provincial Capitol. But it is essential that one visits at least one of Vigan’s three popular museums. The ancestral home of Fr. Jose Burgos of the famous GomBurZa (the 3 Filipino priests executed by the Spaniards and are now considered heroes) is the only one run by the government, and although a little dilapidated compared to the others, it still introduces one to the Ilocano culture and heritage. For young kids, this small venue would prove most interesting for its dioramas – miniature depictions of life in the Ilocos. From the mini Chinese junks (trading boats), one can learn just how much trading the merchants from mainland China (and probably Taiwan) did up and down the Northern Luzon coast. It also explains why the Chinese businessmen were so integrated in Vigan high society even before, and nowhere is this more exemplified than in the Syquia Mansion (and Quirino) museum. There is also a display showing how the famous churches were built from the blood and sweat of Filipinos under the polo (forced labor) system, an example of the tobacco industry activities straight from the plantations to the curing houses where the leaves are dried, and an artist’s take on the death of the young General Gregorio del Pilar at the Battle of Tirad Pass near Candon.
Successfully evading the notorious Ilocos midday heat, we waited until afternoon to visit the other museums and tourist sites. By the time we finished, it was perfect merienda time and we headed for the Empanadaan, a corner of the Burgos plaza where the classic Ilocano emapanada is made. Fresh from the hand-rolled dough to the vegetable fillings, it is now served with ground meat or longganisa and eggs as a “special” version. Large vats of oil for deep fat frying are evidence that your food gets served hot and fresh off the stove. Toni was so pleased to find that these food stands also offer ukoy. And although I am avowedly averse to taking vinegar with my food, this is one of the few times I actually enjoy it. In fact, it is the sukang iloko and the lasuna (native mini-onions) which are crucial to enjoying the Ilocano empanada. My Toni loved it so much we kept coming back for the next three days.
I noticed that there are now pork barbeques being sold alongside the empanadas. These grill places stay until early evening and the unusual yet tasty combination also makes for a great dinner fare. I am told that grilled food is such a favorite amongst tourists that the Ilocanos decided to also integrate it in their tourist attractions.
We were quite fortunate to be joined by my Mom on this trip, so it was she who mentioned to Toni that another popular Ilocano fare is our miki. This noodle soup of sorts is chicken-based and colored with achuete. Once again, the uniqueness lies in the special home-made dough that looks like the slightly-flattened linguine pasta. At the new must-see place “Hidden Gardens”, we tried their own version of miki which was garnished with bagnet, another meat favorite from Ilocos. As we ate an early dinner, Mama likewise hints at another meat delicacy – the ladek, our so-called version of the sisig. Bits and pieces of cooked pork formed into meat patties, ladek is wrapped in banana leaves and can be frozen in storage until ready to be eaten by simply placing over freshly cooked rice like the Bicolano pangat.
While touring the Heritage Village looking over the different stores’ wares, one already gets an idea what to bring back as souvenirs and pasalubongs The classic abel blankets are a favorite as well as the burnay, the unique clay pottery still being made in the North. Recently, the chichacorn of various flavors has also become a trademark Ilocano take-home. But true-to-form, Mama once again introduced Toni to a traditional Ilocano product – the basi wine from San Ildefonso. Carrying the brandname “Gongogong”, this bottled beverage made from fermented sugarcane juice is the alcohol of choice of Ilocanos since time immemorial, and was in fact the reason for the great Basi revolt in Philippine history. Today, it has found a resurgence as a favorite pasalubong item and because of its export quality, many Ilocano emigrants and overseas workers bring these as souvenirs for friends and compatriots. And even when we’re already originally from Ilocos, we can’t help but bring back most of these goods on our annual visits as if we’re also tourists experiencing Ilocandia for the first time.
For me, I find that the ever changing landscape of Ilocandia makes me see it with new eyes everytime. Besides, watching my beloved Toni enjoy the trip not only brings back my childhood, but allows me to have new memories to cherish as well.