Kalinga-Apayao | Discovering the Indigenous Cuisine on the Other Side of Cordillera
To say that culture is best served on a platter is what sums up my recent 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.
In the north lies Apayao, the homeland of the Isneg. In the south is Kalinga, the heartland of the warriors of Cordillera.
Kalinga-Apayao, politically divided but gastronomically inseparable
Both provinces are politically apart & their cultures reflect some gradations of differences. But Kalinga-Apayao shares the same culinary characteristics. They are heavy on rice, red meat & root vegetables.
But to better understand the rich culinary traditions of this side of Cordillera, we need to stir to the bottom of their history & topography.
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 a bamboo tube.
Bamboo cooking style is called “linudag” in Kalinga while the Isneg call it “sinibalu”.
Unlike the other parts of the Cordillera region that are 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 are grown in the lowlands. But the highlands where its lush rainforests are, produces much of the other vegetables needed in their diet.
One vegetable dish that 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. It is usually served as an appetizer with a dash of red chili.
The Cordillerans like all indigenous communities anthropologically lived on paleo diet. While they may be 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”. It is particularly called “inalsa” by the Isnegs.
This dish traditionally uses “kiwat” or catfish with “ungal” or banana stalk along with “ot-an” shellfish. It is customarily prepped only with chili, garlic & onions cooked on a low flame inside a bamboo tube. But modern-day “sinursur” uses other seasonings to appeal to the complex tastes of the new generation.
Being landlocked, salt in their food was never used in the ancient times. They smoked their meats like the “kini-ing” to preserve it. Salt was brought by the traders from lowland coastal provinces like Pangasinan, Ilocos & northern Cagayan.
“Our rivers are a good source of food, that is 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 that uses the humble “siway” or taro. It is quite similar to Bicol’s “laing” only made savory by the copious use of “sagket” or shrimp paste.
Chicken meat 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 did taste a chicken dish called “sinilian” or “pinalatan” sans the too brutal preparation. It came with pomelo leaves that added fragrance & red chili for that slight kick in the palate.
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 celebrates it with a festival.
“Inandila” is the “palitaw” in other parts of the Philippines. But theirs is longer, thicker & shaped like a tongue. Instead of grated coconut toppings, their version comes with “latik” or coco caramel & crushed nuts.
I just have to say that “inandila” is deliciously incomparable!
Collectively, the indigenous cuisine of Kalinga-Apayao is good & simple. Its ingredients are backyard-easy & the flavors are not complex.
Judging it from its indigenous characteristics, the taste is not bland but not as aggressive on the palate. To begin with, theirs is not a spice-heavy cuisine, as these are not massively grown here.
Despite the influx of people migration from other parts of north Luzon, its indigenous cuisine was not heavily influenced because the Kalingas & the Isnegs lived on sustainable environments.
All the food that they need are within their surroundings. They hunt animals for meat & pick any vegetable they could find in the forest or in their backyard.
The ancient Cordillerans were not as nomadic as those seafaring ethnic communities. They are very territorial honoring strong tribal membership & filial allegiance. They live in mountain communities that provide everything. 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 has 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 flavors by putting in seasonings, spices & ingredients that are not organic to their territory.
I have to admit that I cannot say it’s good or bad to bring their indigenous cuisine 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 be documented, preserved & appreciated now that city food has already 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.