MANILA, MARCH 13, 2009
(STAR) TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag - Squeeze, rattle and shake: The silóng or rattan tong is squeezed around the hot palayok‘s neck to better handle it. The Ilocanos’ most popular contribution to Philippine cuisine is perhaps the pakbet (pronounced “pak-butt,” a.k.a. pinakbet), for one can find it anywhere you go in the country. It has traveled the length of our archipelago brought about by the Ilocano migration to greener pastures. Yet this seemingly simple vegetable stew elicits much debate as to what the genuine article is, perhaps much in the same way as adobo does. But what is “authentic” nowadays? Most classic dishes have been transformed into different variants and interpretations, although each adaptation credits its origin by calling it by its original name.

Ilocano tradition dictates how specific the veggies are cut, and the manner of cooking, placed in a palayok or earthenware pot in layers, doused with bagoong isda (fermented anchovy paste), covered and steamed in its own juices. The pot is given an occasional shake with the use of silóng or rattan tong, squeezed around the poor palayok’s neck, as if to prod (force is more like it) the poor vegetables to sweat it out (Sweat some more, you lazy bums! Pun intended). After all, its original name comes from pinakkebet, literally meaning “to cook till wrinkled.” More often than not, the poor vegetables, small as they are, are all dull brown in color and wilted beyond recognition (much like ratatouille, perhaps?). And, if the gods are kind, chicharon (pork rind) or bagnet (lechon kawali or crispy fried pork belly) may be added. Inabraw (a.k.a. dinengdeng), another variant of the vegetable stew, is cooked much the same way, albeit a little more watery like the Tagalog’s bulanglang.

Pakbet’s combination of vegetables may vary, from the bittersweet ampalaya, whose bitterness defines much of Ilocano cooking; the slimy okra; sitaw or yard-long beans; sigadillas or winged beans; lima beans, green finger chilies; to the eggplant, having a pleasantly bitter taste (again, that Ilocano thing) and spongy texture that, when eaten, leaves a somewhat biting sensation in the upper mouth.

Anathema to the purists is the use of bagoong alamang or shrimp paste, which is preferred by the non-Ilocanos, to be sautéed with onion, garlic and tomatoes. Kalabasa or squash in pakbet is also a big no-no, but then included in most pakbet outside Ilocolandia. Ginger strips are also added after sautéing the garlic and onions, which this author subscribes to, to somehow neutralize the fishy smell/taste of the bagoong, of either fish or shrimp.

In the runaway bestseller cookbook Kulinarya (now in its fourth printing, available in National Bookstore and Powerbooks nationwide), the vegetables are blanched separately as each one has a different cooking time, to ensure they are cooked but remain firm. A little salt is added to the boiling water for blanching to help retain the veggies’ natural color. Blanching the ampalaya also lessens the bitterness. Kulinarya aims to inspire today’s kitchen practitioner with the best practices in the selection of ingredients, its preparation, presentation and understanding of Filipino cuisine. To paraphrase an old cliché, the proof in the adobo/pakbet is in the consistency and presentation.

New trends in cooking and the international exposure of the Filipino palate are changing people’s outlook towards acceptance of fresh takes on traditional dishes. A form of “green revolution,” to borrow a catchphrase of former first lady Imelda R. Marcos during martial law years in the mid 1970s, has been happening in Ilocos Norte. We see more and more a burst of colors on the table, like the red-orange tomatoes in salads, different hues of green from the fresh seaweed and green veggies, bright yellows of kalabasa and its flowers and the pinkish-white of katuray flowers.

In my column last Sunday on Ilocos Norte, I mentioned having tried new and innovative dishes that are Ilocano in essence but modern in approach, veering away from the too-salty and usually cooked-to-death veggies that traditional Ilocano cooking dictates. Saramsam and Herencia Cafés by Sam Blas, La Preciosa by Pam Aragoza, Eya Cabanos of Mom’s Country Kitchen Catering, and Sitio Remedios are but a few of the pioneering establishments serving a variety of fresh salads, cooked-just-right vegetables and innovative dishes making use of a basically foreign cooking techniques but using all locally sourced ingredients such as Poque-poque (eggplant omelet), pakbet and dinardaraan pizzas; burritos filled with purple rice, longganisa and veggies; Ylocano fondue, and the like. Known to be frugal as they are, they are nevertheless fastidious about getting the freshest ingredients.

Below is the recipe for Pakbet Paella I cooked while jamming at the Sitio Remedios kitchen two weekends ago. Following the technique of preparing this popular Spanish rice dish, only locally sourced ingredients were used: brown mountain rice from Adams; tomatoes, red onions (lasuna), ginger and native Ilocos garlic to make the sofrito; mini veggies and seafood for the topping; and the bagoong to capture that quintessentially Ilocano flavor. For those abstaining from meat this Lent, a pescetarian paella recipe is presented. But for the inveterate carnivores like me, garlicky Ilocos longganisa and golden nuggets of bagnet are highly recommended.

Pakbet Paella

The main components are segregated as each one can be done separately in the order presented below.

Do your math: As a rule of thumb, 1 cup uncooked rice will serve 2 persons. For every cup of rice, you’ll need 1/2 cup sofrito and 1 cup soup stock.

Bagoong sofrito

This can be made in big batches and stored in the freezer, especially now that tomatoes are at their peak and lowest in price starting at P5 per kilo. This sofrito can also be used in cooking other vegetable dishes like sitaw, mongo guisado, bingagoongang baboy, Bicol express, topping over fried fish, or simply dipping for bagnet or lechon kawali. If a vegan sofrito is desired, replace the bagoong with salt. Alternatively, if you want the saltiness from fermented fish but not its smell, try using canned anchovies, albeit a more expensive one.

To make approximately 9 cups:

1 cup cooking oil

1 cup minced garlic

2 cups chopped red onions

4 cups chopped tomatoes. Before chopping tomatoes, separate seeds and pulp and put in a blender and run through a strainer. Use the juice drippings for the sofrito.

1/4 cup ginger strips

1cup bagoong alamang (shrimp paste) from the wet market, washed in water and drained to lessen its saltiness. If unavailable, bottled bagoong will do but skip the washing.

1/4 cup bagoong isda munamon (fish paste) or 1 can 2oz/56g anchovy

Cooking: Heat oil in pan, sauté the garlic and onion until translucent.

Add ginger, tomatoes, washed bagoong alamang and fish bagoong and let simmer for 5 minutes stirring constantly. Add the tomato drippings.

Vegetables: Any quantity and combination thereof: mini ampalaya or bitter gourd; sitaw or yard-long beans cut into 2-inch long pieces; sigarilyas or wing beans, cut diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces; mini okra (sometimes the Japanese variety are available locally); mini round eggplants (prick first with a fork, then grill directly over stove flame, peel off burnt skin); squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch wedges; Cooking: Boil 1 liter water and add 1 tsp salt. Blanch the vegetables (except eggplant) separately as each one has different cooking time. Make sure not to overcook. Strain. Keep the remaining liquid from the blanching to add to the fish stock. When all the vegetables are cooked, add 1cup sofrito (per kilo of veggies) and mix thoroughly. Set aside but keep warm.

Prawns and bangus

Peel the prawns but retain the tails. Make a slit on the back of each prawn. Remove heads. Set aside the shells and heads to make stock. Frozen prime-cut bangus bellies are highly recommended. However, fish bones and heads are needed to make the stock. Ask your suki fishmonger for such. Cooking: Season prawns and bangus with coarse salt and pepper. Heat oil in pan to fry bangus till light brown. Remove from pan and set aside. Fry prawns in the same pan. When curled up and orangey in color, add 1/4 cup of sofrito and continue cooking for another 30 seconds. Set aside but keep warm.

Fish stock: Place in a pot some water (as needed for your number of servings) and add the prawn shells and heads, bangus or any other fish bones and heads, some ginger, leeks, and the used water from the veggie blanching. Boil for 15 minutes. Discard all solid parts. Keep hot.

Paella rice: Soak rice in water for 30 minutes. Drain. Heat paella pan or any shallow, flat-bottom frying pan. Place in sofrito and spread out evenly. Add rice and mix thoroughly with the sofrito, making sure each grain is coated with it. Pour in stock. Mix well and cover pan. Simmer over low heat, checking every now and then if rice is cooked. This shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. Add more stock if necessary. When rice is cooked, spread out evenly the pakbet veggies on top, and position the prawns and bangus pieces to have a beautifully presented dish. Cover again to keep it warm until ready to serve.

Tips on cooking paella on stove top: to cook the rice evenly, rotate the paella pan over the heat every 30 seconds, making sure each section of the pan gets some heat. The rice shouldn’t be stirred once the fish stock is poured. Stirring produces gluten from the rice and will tend to make it malagkit or sticky. We like it buhaghag or loose-grain rice.

Optional: Bagnet or lechon kawali, cut into 1-inch cubes. Cooked Ilocano longganisa (garlicky or recado type, not the sweet or hamonado) cut into wedges.  

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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