Tasting Notes

New Discoveries along the Historic Cobbled Streets of Ilocos

By Gene Gonzales 

During one of our ocular visits to a prospective client, we were amazed at the varied food finds that what one could have while visiting Vigan. We were lucky enough to stay at the heritage sites, booked as we were in one of the best-situated hotels called Vigan Plaza Hotel, which is literally in front of the plaza.

Vigan Plaza Hotel, photo courtesy of hotels.com.

Since we arrived rather late, it was good to find a pleasurable listing of Ilocos specialties on offer at the hotel’s Cafe Bigaa. We sampled a series of dishes that were quite representative of Vigan. I liked the idea of a meal set that was served before us that seemed to revolve around Ilocos flavors. It contained pinakbet (which authentically uses fermented fish bagoong), and higado that shows the love for offal of the Ilocano, sautéed in one of their main crops, which are onions, and lots of it.

Poqui-Poqui, photo courtesy of Maypril Sacramento.

Curiously, the longannisacame with a salsa called KBL or kamatis, bagoong, and lasona (shallots) and, of course, the other dip was the amber, natural cane juice vinegar that Ilocos is so famous for because of its sweet and savory aroma, flavor, and lip-smacking acidity. For creamy and smoother textures, we had poqui poqui, a hash of sautéed eggplant with tomatoes and onions given more moisture by the last moment inclusion of beaten eggs.

Longganisa and KBL, photo courtesy of Probinsyana Foodie.

Another curiously textural vegetable dish was dinuyduy or puréed squash on a sautéed bitter gourd, where the sweetness of squash was balanced by the bitter flavors of ampalaya. A hearty karekare was the final course, creatively given a crispy twist by using bagnet instead of the usual oxtail or tripe.

Kare-kare bagnet, photo courtesy of Pinx De Leon.

After the filling dinner, we decided to go around the heritage site and marvel at the dramatic lighting of the cobblestone streets and beautifully refurbished houses. Many of these are residences with lodging facilities and others have been converted into restaurants. We did go and have a nightcap at one of the more well-known bars and had some subzero beers with a serving dinakdakan or peppery grilled pork face and liver-enriched by the puréed brain.

Dinakdakan, photo courtesy of Phoi Chan.

I took an early morning walk on the plaza that was just waking up and saw the empanada stands just getting their stalls ready. I was led by my nose to the earliest opened stall that had a giant stockpot on woodfire with several uniformed employees relishing a typical Ilocano breakfast of a soup of boiled tender offal soured by the seasonal kamias, or tamarind in other months.

Dried fish
Dried fish.

I had to return to the hotel, giving the stalls more time to fully open while we did our market visits. But before that breakfast, I was in a place called First Sinanglao that had built its reputation on sinanglao. I had to order in doubles not only because of the variety of offal one could get from the servers, but because the line to the cafeteria was long and did not seem to thin out. The soup was excellent with just a hint of tartness. If you wanted to add some bile or bitterness, you could get some on the tables bottled for the day.

Sinanglao, photo courtesy of CEs Dalanon.

We visited four nearby Ilocos Sur markets and ended up in the Vigan Public Market. Although Vigan has a coastline, it was a surprise to find that the first two markets nearest La Union had a good selection of seafood. All markets had an amazing variety of vegetables. Aside from the pinakbet assortment, we found vegetables unique to Ilocano cooking like saluyotalukonpapait, beautiful young garlic, and shallots with their leaves.

Pinakbet vegetables
Ingredients for pinakbet.

Fresh beans were taken from their pods, such as lima-beans and pigeon peas, also abound. What we found quite amazing were the varieties of seaweed available in all the markets. Several varieties of sargassum or sea grapes from large to minute were available, even one that tasted of wasabi. There was a red laver that is not only eaten raw but is also used in sinigang.

Seaweed
Seaweed.

By the time we returned to the Vigan Plaza, the stalls were bustling with people having their fill of empanadas and okoy. We found one stall selling okoy topped with river crayfish, quite a rarity nowadays. We settled for a stall that was busily chopping their fresh vegetables and ordered the special empanada with Vigan longganisa and egg that had its yolk oozing as we bit through the crisply fried shells. A great merienda considering we were about ready to check out and make our way back to Manila.

Empanada, photo courtesy of Dannabelle.

On the road out of Vigan, we made a quick stopover to Barangay Capangpangan and visited Shielito’s bagnet and longganisa factory. This time we were treated to crisp pork jowls, among the most iconic Vigan’s dishes. We could hear the crunch in our heads, as we sampled and bought the treats for our journey back home.

Banner photo courtesy of Bong Flores.

The original article was first published in Manila Bulletin Lifestyle.

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