Ilocos Norte: Proud of Pork
Lyra Santos writes an ode to pork as she uncovers three pork dishes that visitors to Ilocos Norte cannot leave without trying.
Ilocanos are known for being the reserved people of the north. This has also been the case with their food, with pinakbet--at one point the most known Ilocano recipe in the market--widely imitated in other regions, but never approaching the way the Ilocanos make it. Now that the great Northern (not to mention oily) menu has recently been broken open, people see that it is not just okra that runs through the veins of the folks up north, but also pork.
One of the most popular pork dishes is the empanada. It has to be said that there is a huge difference between the empanada recipes of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte (this is an article about Norte food). The first thing that is noticeable is that the Norte empanada is a lurid bright orange. This is because of the ingredients (some manangs say it's a secret) that is put into the flour. The fillings are varied, but the main ones are Ilocano longganisa, bean sprouts, and an egg. For vegetarians, you can ask for only the bean sprouts and the egg, or for vegans, you can have only the bean sprouts. For those wishing for a more adventurous eating experience, the longganisa and egg can be doubled up.
Another staple that has entered the mainstream market is the aforementioned longganisa. There is an ongoing debate on which longganisa is better, if indeed it is in Vigan (Sur) or Laoag (Norte). The Laoag version of the longganisa is more garlicky than its southern counterpart and has less fat in the sausage links. This is usually eaten with a healthy dose of sukang iloko, the native vinegar that is made from sugarcane juice with yeast or what is called samak leaves, that is aged in pot called a burnay. If this is fermented longer, it becomes basi which is the Ilocano wine.
Another heart stopping favorite is bagnet. Bagnet is a pork cut (usually the loin) that is served a kilo or half a kilo at a time, deep fried and glistening. This is eaten with what is called KBL, which stands for kamatis (tomato), bagoong (fermented fish), and lasona, which is the red onion native to Ilocos. This helps cut through the richness and oiliness of the dish.
This is a province that Anthony Bourdain would be proud of. These foods used to be only available after a considerable 14-hour trip to Ilocos Norte, but now most of these dishes are available in some of the gourmet night markets in Manila. Those who insist on authenticity can head to the Batac Market in front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception for bagnet and longganisa. It doesn’t really matter where you buy them, because they’re all good, and there isn’t a significant difference in the prices. For the empanadas, just cross the street and get your fix from the vendors in front of the church.
Let’s eat, or in Ilocano, "Mangan tayon!"
Because in the Philippines, you can't get enough of all things superb. Basta Pinas, Naimas!
By day, Lyra Santos is a freelance web marketing consultant. At night, she transforms into a foodie who likes Star Wars, Jane Austen, and heavy metal music.
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