July 2, 2004  (STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag  -  The Ilocanos’ most popular contributions to Philippine cuisine are undoubtedly pakbet (pronounced as pak-butt); bagnet (bag-nutt) and longganisa, given its strong garlicky flavor, it being a major agricultural product of the Ilocos.

Being known to be frugal and tight-fisted as they are, nothing goes to waste in an Ilocano kitchen. They make use of everything that can be eaten, perhaps due to the harsh climate and limited resources. They nevertheless are squeamish about getting only the freshest ingredients.

According to food writer Micky Fenix, in her book Philippine Cuisine — A Country’s Heritage, what makes Ilocano cooking distinct from other Philippine regions is the bitter range of flavors. This bitterness is sought after in the Ilocos. It may come from the common ampalaya or bitter melon. The Ilocano cook retains its bitter juice by just cutting it halfway, while elsewhere in the country its white membrane and seeds are removed, then blanched with a little salt before it is used in cooking.

Another source for the bitter taste comes from the papait or apdo (bile) of the cow, carabao or goat. The papait, while a waste product for most, is an indispensable ingredient for dishes like pinapaitan, imbaliktad and sinanglaw that give it a definitive Ilocano character.

Any grilled or fried fish is given the same treatment. The gills may be removed, but the innards are left intact inside the belly. A bangus, is typically grilled whole, with scales, intestines and all. Eating the fatty belly, one gets the bitter aftertaste of the innards and bile, almost like having papaitan on the side, and dipping this with bagoong na isda, kalamansi and sili. In all of the Ilocos region, La Union and Pangasinan, fried fish entrails, simply sprinkled with salt and dipped in sukang Iloko (naturally fermented sugarcane juice infused with dried parts of samak, a medicinal plant), is a favorite pulutan.

And of course, there’s the other indispensable ingredient present in every Ilocano kitchen – fish bagoong. Also used as a dipping sauce, it is present in most meals. Inabraw (also called dinengdeng) is the generic term for vegetable stew flavored with the bagoong, tomatoes and ginger. The venerable pakbet is flavored much the same way. According to Nonong Ablan, owner of Palazzo de Laoag Hotel, the pakbet is cooked in a kawali or palayok, with the different vegetables laid in layers (the firmest pieces are placed at the bottom) then topped with tomatoes and chunks of bagnet and finally doused with the bagoong before it is covered and cooked. The dish will actually be cooked in the veggies’ own juice. And according to anac ti Batac Irene Marcos Araneta, with whom we had the pleasure of partaking a wonderful heritage meal at Ablan’s hotel quite recently, she’d give a failing mark to a pakbet that has squash in it or is flavored with bagoong alamang or shrimp paste (that’s the Tagalog version, according to her). By the way, Irene swears by the dinuguan cooked by Ablan’s mother.

Names of some Ilocano dishes may sound obscene to the uninitiated. Puki-puki is a simple tortang talong (an eggplant is first grilled, then flattened, dipped in whisked egg before it is fried), but it would probably elicit some giggles because it is named after the female’s private part, with allusions to the men’s own wherein the elongated thing is battered to a pulp (pun intended) and the egg beaten. Perhaps it is the women’s way of getting back at the male species? Talk about domestic violence! By the way, in an Ilocano’s home, the kitchen is pretty much a man’s world.

And then there’s dinardaraan or dinuguan, which sounds like dinuraan or spat on to the Tagalogs. The Ilocano version to this blood stew is a thick porridge made with liempo or pork belly, much like the Visayan version. In Pampanga, our tidtad (short for tinadtad or chopped) is more of a soup, with chunks of the coagulated blood mixed with either pork liempo, pata (trotters), or intestines.

In the Ilocano version, the blood from a freshly slaughtered pig is whisked briskly in a large cauldron while sukang Iloko is slowly introduced, forming a silken creamy paste, which becomes the dinardaraan’s base. In Dawang’s Place, a hole-in-the-wall in the fringes of Laoag City, its version makes use of chunky bits of crispy bagnet, giving each spoonful an unexpected crunch to the normally mellifluous stew. Rating: Out of this world but deadly sinful!

Dinakdakan is a dish made from slices of pig’s ears and cow’s brain, while imbaliktad are paper-thin slices of beef (sukiyaki cut), marinated with ginger bits and papait or bile giving it a faintly bitter taste. The term imbaliktad means to turn over, a literal description of how the pieces of meat are cooked: pan-seared slightly on each side.

Different varieties of edible seaweeds find their way into the Ilocano’s table. Gamet is a popular one, much like the Japanese nori which also comes in sheets. It is a seasonal delicacy found in the coastlines of Pagudpod and Burgos towns. It is used to make soup, omelette or salad. Dinengdeng is a fish stew made with malunggay leaves and gamet. Pukpoklo, is a stringy variety, while kulot is the hair type (like the Chinese black hair seaweed) which resembles, gross as it may sound, the curly hair collected in the shower drain.

Also gathered from the shoreline are different seashells like tukmem, siek, bukasit and unnok. These are normally sautéed with tomatoes and ginger, or mixed with leafy greens.

Another exotic, seasonal delicacy gathered from the nest of winged ants in the mountain forest is buos or ants’ eggs. It is slightly sour in taste and is usually sautéed in tomatoes and salt. Considered by many as an aphrodisiac, it is eaten with rice or as pulutan. Full-grown ants are also cooked and eaten in the same manner. And so are locusts.

Fear factor never seems to be in the Ilocano’s vocabulary. In spite of the region’s seeming harsh climatic conditions, the Ilocano’s ingenuity brings plenty of good chow to the dining table. And no, it’s not the politics they cook.

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(To be continued this coming Sunday with "Part 2: In search of the real McCoy")

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Palazzo de Laoag Hotel and Restaurant is located at Barangay 27, P.Palermo St., Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, with tel. no. (077)773-1842.

Dawang’s Place is found along the National Highway, San Nicolas, Ilocos Norte (just outside Laoag City).

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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