Ilocano Cuisine | The Crispy, Hearty & Naughty
Ilocano cuisine has always something to make any foodie burp — from the hearty & healthy, to the crispy & naughty. And whether original to Ilocos or a version of our favorite food from somewhere else, eating your way around here is surely a delightful travel experience.
Ilocos may be a wonderland of heritage sites, coastal attractions & exquisite handicrafts but it is always their food that lingers in our travel memories the most. Whenever I travel here, I just keep a shameless note to myself: stay on diet, until the next meal is served!
Ilocano Cuisine: A Delicious Reason to Travel North
Ilocos is recognized for its strong culinary traditions across our islands-sprawling nation. It is a salt-happy & porcine-dominated regional cuisine that is so adored for its flavorful dishes.
They have unwavering loyalty for its sukang Iloko (Ilocano sugarcane vinegar), bagoong (fish or shrimp paste), garlic & crunchy finish to meats. From naughty-sounding names of its vegetables to the artery-clogging meat dishes, they always find ways to turn the simplest of an ingredient into something exciting on the palate.
Get your tummies ready because no one goes hungry in Ilocandia. Here are some of the unforgettable food that makes any traveler to Ilocos go Iloco-loco!
Oh So Fat, Baby!
Longganisa is one of Ilocos’ most defining dishes. This salty & garlicky sausage of ground pork fat stuffed in pork intestine wrap is the star on any Ilocano breakfast table. The secret to its fat-oozing longganisa is in its marinade.
It is a duel between the biting sourness of sugarcane vinegar & the strong spicy flavor of garlic that makes you hail a hand for another cup of rice. If you want to spot in the crowd who just had a string of longganisa, wait until someone burps!
The king of all lechon kawali, lechon carajay, prichon & crispy liempo is the Ilocano bagnet! These are slabs of pork belly deep-fried in lard or literally in its own fat. It is air-dried a few times over to drain the oil & to bring it to its maximum crispiness. Before serving, the slabs take its final plunge in the frying pan until it becomes the artery-snagging masterpiece masked in crunchy golden nuggets.
Tip: Check out the bagnet in Narvacan for some real-crunchy treat.
Dinakdakan or Warek-Warek is a “killing me softly” dish made of motley of pig parts (usually the mascara) & brain. The meat is boiled, cooked in vinegar & seasoned with lots of onion & garlic. If you don’t mind your uric acid level, this one makes a really good beer partner.
Tip: In Vigan, look for Gaizel, a hole-in-the-wall that is popular among locals.
The Ilocano empanada may just seem to look like a harmless fried turnover stuffed with grated green papaya, monggo sprouts, longganisa & egg. But wait ‘til you see how the rice dough soaks in all the oil. Never mind, it’s yummy anyway!
Tip: Best empanadas can be scored in Laoag’s Empanadaan & Johnny Moon, along Plaza Burgos in Vigan & beside the River Plaza in Batac.
Dinardaraan is the Ilocano variation of “dinuguan” or pork blood stew. What makes the Ilocano version exciting is the use of crunchy bagnet in a stew of coagulated blood. This pudding runs on the dry side compared to the gravy-ish preparations in other regions.
Tip: Delicious dinardaraan are in Saramsam Restaurant in Laoag & Dawang’s Place in San Nicolas. Wanna know how to cook this at home? Check out Ang Sarap Recipes.
If Jollibee is to Manila’s every street corner, in Ilocos are its Sinanglaoan joints. This clear soup with wallowing chunks of innards is popular for breakfast or as a hangover cure. It has a special biting flavor from the mixture of vinegar, ginger & red chilies.
Tip: Halftime Sinanglaoan in Vigan & those roadside shacks in Bacarra are popular spots for sinanglao & other stars of Ilocano cuisine.
Ilocano Cuisine’s Titillating Vegies
Enough of the cardiac scare, let’s move on to the healthy side.
I have never blushed on vegetables not until I came across this slew of Ilocano vegetable names that are coincidentally naughty in street slang Tagalog. Well, it is what it is, nothing malicious. But yeah, let’s giggle!
Poqui-poqui / Poki-poki (pussy) is a simple sauteed eggplant. It is grilled, seasoned & tossed with onions, bell pepper & egg. It is usually served for breakfast but real good anytime of the day.
Utong (nipples) are just your humble string beans. They are usually best in that undying adobo finish. Or mixed with other vegies in pinakbet or inabraw.
Kabatiti (titi = dick) is your delicious patola or sponge gourd. I love kabatiti in misua soup or sauteed patola & sayote with bits of dried fish. How about you?
Pinakbet is the Ilocano’s to-die-for mélange of vegetables stewed & shriveled with shrimp paste. Ampalaya or bitter gourd is the star of this dish but if you put in the rest of the gang like the poqui-poqui, utong & kabatiti, what you get is a savory orgy of vegetables.
Bulanglang to the Tagalogs, bas-uy/law-uy to the Bisayas & dinengdeng or inabraw to the Ilocanos. This soup-based dish throws in all sorts of vegetables, its young leaves, fruit or flower. It is boiled with fish sauce to add flavor or sometimes with tucmem or clams & shredded left over fish.
Tip: Sample this at Saramsam in Laoag or at Kusina Felicitas in Vigan’s Grandpa’s Inn
Only in Vigan
Unknown to many, Vigan has a distinct food called pipian. It is porridge of ground rice & chicken similar to Arrozcaldo. But what makes it unique is the use of atchuete & pasotes in its stock.
Pasotes or epazote is an herb originating from southern Mexico. It probably came to the Philippines via the Galleon Trade, which Vigan was once an important link in the 16th century. Interestingly, this age-old dish has not traveled outside of Vigan because it isn’t widely present in other nearby towns or popular in Ilocano cuisine.
Ilocos & the World
Ilocano cuisine is also a progressive cuisine where the traditional ways meet new-age techniques & interpretations without losing the integrity of its food customs. Then there are restaurants that bring in inspirations from the world’s best kitchens & create a fusion with Ilocano favorites.
Take Saramsam Ylocano by Sammy Blas, Herencia Cafe & La Preciosa that blend the flavors of the amianan (north) region with western food & dishing out pinakbet pizza, shrimp paste pasta & dinardaraan empanada among others.
Do you know of best spots to sample Ilocano food?
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