Kalinga-Apayao Indigenous Cuisine | Cordillera Food Tour
To say that culture is best served on a platter describes my journey in Kalinga-Apayao on the central mountains of the Cordillera region. This trip gave me deep reasons to appreciate more the things that bind & separate the Kalingas & the Isnegs in spatial relations, cultural nuances & folk characteristics.
Most of us grew up knowing this place in northern Luzon as Kalinga-Apayao. But they actually split-up in 1995 to better serve the various needs of its ethnic communities. Both are landlocked provinces framed by massive mountains & punctuated by wild rivers.
Kalinga-Apayao, politically divided but gastronomically inseparable
Both provinces are politically apart. Also, their cultures reflect some gradations of differences. But Kalinga-Apayao shares the same culinary characteristics. They are heavy on rice, red meat & root vegetables.
However, we need to stir to the bottom of their history & topography to better understand the rich culinary traditions of this side of Cordillera.
These provinces are among the finest producers of rice in the country. And their traditional culinary usage of it is nowhere more exotic & laborious than cooking it inside bamboo tubes.
Bamboo cooking style is called “linudag” in Kalinga while the Isneg call it “sinibalu”.
Unlike other parts of the Cordillera region adored for its cold mountain breeze, this side is infamous for its arid lands & humid weather. Apayao typically practices dry farming while Kalinga uses both dry & wet techniques.
This kind of inhospitable temperature especially during dry season explains why only root vegetables grow in the lowlands. But the highlands produces much of the other vegetables needed in their diet.
One vegetable dish I particularly loved in this trip was Kalinga’s “binungor”. It is a mix of stringbeans, squash, bitter gourd, eggplant, young jackfruit, kidney beans & bamboo shoots all medium boiled in coconut milk.
But the star ingredients of “binungor” are “tenggang-daga” or jelly fungus & “ot-an”, a succulent river shellfish. A dash of red chili on the side makes the whole thing kick-ass yummy.
Succulent River Finds
The Cordillerans anthropologically lived on paleo diet. While they were heavy on meat, they too ate fish & shellfish from the river. Apayao, Abulog & Chico rivers are abundant sources of these omega-rich nutrients.
The usual culinary usage of it among the Kalinga-Apayao people is “sinursur”. The Isnegs call it “inalsa”.
This dish traditionally uses “kiwat” or catfish. “Ungal” or banana stalk along with “ot-an” shellfish & spices creates the yummy ensemble flamed on a bamboo tube. But modern-day “sinursur” uses other seasonings to appeal to the complex tastes of the new generation.
Salt in their food was sparingly used in the ancient times because they’re landlocked. Instead, they smoked their meats like the “kini-ing” to preserve it. Traders from lowland coastal provinces like Pangasinan, Ilocos & northern Cagayan were thought to introduce salt.
“Our rivers are a good source of food & our eternal lifeline”, said Tatay Albert Duran, a local cook sought-after for his traditional Isneg dishes. “We cook whatever we find in our surroundings.”
“Pinaktan” is a classic example of a simple Isneg dish using the humble “siway” or taro. It is quite similar to Bicol’s “laing” made savory by the copious use of “sagket” or shrimp paste.
Chicken is one of the most common meats consumed by the Cordillerans. And “pinikpikan” is perhaps its most popular dish. It’s a “killing-me-softly” kind of food where the chicken is beaten by a stick to allow the blood to coagulate.
But we tasted a chicken dish too called “sinilian” or “pinalatan” sans the brutal preparation. It came with fragrant pomelo leaves & red chili for slight kick in the palate.
On the Sweet Side
We didn’t get the chance to sample Isneg snacks but the Kalingas wowed us with their famed “inandila”. It is so famous that the heritage village of Naneng in Tabuk even celebrates it with a festival.
“Inandila” is the “palitaw” in other parts of the Philippines. But theirs is longer, thicker & shaped like a tongue. Their version comes with “latik” or coco caramel & crushed nuts instead of grated coconut toppings. I must say, “inandila” is deliciously incomparable!
Collectively, the indigenous cuisine of Kalinga-Apayao is good & simple. Its ingredients are backyard-easy & the flavours are not complex. The taste is not bland but not as aggressive on the palate.
Keeping the Heirloom Food of Kalinga-Apayao
Living on sustainable environments kept these indigenous cuisines largely uninfluenced. All the food they needed were within their surroundings. They hunted animals for meat & picked any vegetable in the forest or in their backyard.
The ancient Cordillerans were not as nomadic as those seafaring ethnic communities. They were very territorial honouring strong tribal membership. Thus keeping much its agri-based culture intact, even the integrity of its cuisine — in taste, ingredients & traditional preparations.
Unlike other regional cuisines, the food of Kalinga-Apayao had not panned extensively outside its territories. One reason for it is because these provinces, especially the highland parts were unscathed by colonization.
They were impenetrable because of its mountainous terrain & warrior culture. This explains why their food was not influenced by outside flavours like seasonings & ingredients not organic to their territory.
I admit, I cannot say it’s good or bad to bring these indigenous cuisines into mainstream tables & reinvent it with modern cookery. Because if we do, no one can guarantee that the integrity of its culinary tradition will not be adulterated. And if we don’t, how else will this cuisine get documented, preserved & appreciated now that city food had long reached the mountains?
There’s so much to love about the Kalinga-Apayao cuisine. If you travel to this side of Cordillera, I encourage you to explore their rich culinary traditions too because it’s a great & filling way to know the culture that defines their indigenous identity.