Northern Exposure: My favorite bites in Ilocos (part1)

Ilocos is a region with a distinct cuisine and a lot of history surrounding it. It is also a very popular cuisine…having spread its delicious influence southwards so that non-ilocanos, like me, are lulled into believing a dish like pinakbet (a steamed/braised vegetable dish) was ours all our lives. One such dish of Ilocano provenance is bagnet, what I like to think of as a chicharon/pork belly confit hybrid. To a pork-chick like me, a kind of holy grail. So, aside from all the famous sites of that region, I was also very (very!) much looking forward to the food. Here are my highlights:

Bagnet –This was the number one dish I was itching to try right in its homeland (I have had a number of times before in Manila – like this time!). Bagnet is made of pork belly (other choice cuts are used as well) that is boiled, then rested, then put in a slow deep fry, then chopped up and deep fried again quickly to crisp up. Scary to some, almost unbearably divine to others (i.e. me). We had it at three places and I enjoyed it every single time. It is served traditionally with KBL (kamatis, bagoong, lasona) – tomatoes, fish sauce, and onions. Bagoong in Manila is usually shrimp paste, but in Ilocos it is unrepentantly powerful fish sauce. This, for me, is the best condiment to have with bagnet, the strong flavors cutting through the fattiness of the pork like a culinary light saber.

We had bagnet in La Preciosa Restaurant in Laoag, at Sitio Remedios our resort, and in Saud Beach Resort Pagudpud. I like the one in La Preciosa the best, although really I enjoyed every one.

Poqui poqui – Strange name, simple dish. Touted as the Ilocano version of tortang talong, it is made up of eggplant, onions, tomato, and egg. Now, I love tortang talong, not just like, love, so I was certainly going to try its northern cousin. As expected, when the combination of egg and eggplant are involved, I loved this too. Grilled eggplant is sautéed with tomatoes, onion, and egg. Simple, yes, but at La Preciosa restaurant it was so sneakily tasty that I unconsciously kept going back to it until I realized just how much of it I had eaten! This is definitely a dish I will recreate at home!

Dinendeng – I wanted to try dinegdeng because aside from being a typical Ilocano dish, it wasn’t as popular down here as, say, pinakbet, which can almost be called a staple in many Filipino tables. Either a vegetable soup with fish, or a fish soup with a whole lot of vegetables, I honestly wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. But I did! The broth is flavored with fish sauce (bagoong isda, not patis) and a few pieces of fried or grilled fish. The star of this soup for me though is the vegetables. They are vibrant and green, if cooked just right…bright, sweet-grassy notes in an otherwise mild fish soup. Mostly green vegetables are used – ours had okra, ampalaya/bitter melon, sitaw/long beans or snake beans, squash flowers, sigarilyas/winged beans, and these little pods that come from the malunggay plant. We had this at La Preciosa and at Sitio Remedios. I like the one at Sitio Remedios better but both were very good.

Vigan Longanisa – In the Philippines there seems to be a longanisa (like a sausage or chorizo) for every region…even some cities boast their own. I count myself lucky as I adore longanisa and, thanks to all these regions churning out their own versions, always have a nice selection in the freezer (right now it’s Lucban, Vigan, Zamboanga…and some made by a friend right here in Manila!). So it goes without saying that I would be trying my share of Vigan’s version. I enjoyed this savory, garlicky, longanisa every morning for breakfast at our resort, but the Vigan longanisa I enjoyed most was the one I brought back home with me…fried by C that same night :) Maybe because it really is best freshly fried? C loved it too so we are jealously guarding our stash…

Pinakbet – No trip to Ilocos would be complete, food-wise, without trying pinakbet. Pinakbet is a braise (well, technically I think it’s steamed) of various vegetables native to the region, flavored with fish sauce (again, not patis but their own “bagoong isda”). Vegetables commonly included are ampalaya/bitter melon, eggplant, okra, and sitaw/long beans. Other vegetables, depending on what’s available, are also tossed in the mix. Where I come from, we also add squash. As a child I would try to pick out the ampalaya pieces behind my mother’s back. In Ilocos I gamely took them on…even if the mini ampalaya they use is stronger in flavor. I got a few good pieces down though and it was not as bitter as I feared. Am I outgrowing irrational childhood food traits? I hope so! :) We had pinakbet in Sitio Remedios and Pinakbet Pizza in Plaza Burgos in Vigan. I still prefer my pinakbet with rice though, thank you :)

La Preciosa Restaurant - Rizal Street, Laoag City, Ilocos Norte
Sitio Remedios – Barangay Victoria, Currimao, Ilocos Norte
Saud Beach Resort – Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte
Plaza Burgos – Vigan, Ilocos Sur (walk up Calle Crisologo and you will hit it); there are a few restaurants surrounding the plaza but you can sit at a table on the plaza itself and they can serve you there.

NOTE: Nena has put up her first post on our Ilocos trip! She will be doing a whole series on our adventure, so keep checking back at Ramblings From a Gypsy Soul for her wonderful travel writing and beautiful photos! :)