Saturday, 25 April 2015

Eleven Things To Eat in Ilocos

It is summertime in the Philippines!  The streams on my facebook is filled with images of  our tropical brand of happiness!  Here I am cocooned, sweatshirt and all, watching the gloomy Saturday run its course, my mind miles away filled with a longing for...

Halo-halo - the quintessential Filipino frozen dessert
    (Image from

Green Mango and Bagoong
(Image from

And the sea, our glorious tropical sea
Saud Beach, Pagudpud (Image from

I Imagine myself enjoying these summer treats while the breeze slaps me into a state of languor, my feet warmed by pearly white sands,  skin marked golden by the eternal summer sun. Haaay, what more can I possibly want?

But I am halfway around the world, where although it is spring and the tulips have began to bloom,  it cannot measure up to my tropical islands´ beautiful summers.

So I write this sort of paean instead.  My brother just came back from a road trip to our province in Ilocos with his friends from work.  I saw  Facebook  pictures and  I am filled with envy, the kind that has a little bit of smugness:  It´s beautiful, no? Yeah, I know, I´m from there.  Ilocos is spectacular, the highway to the North are tiptop, our beaches are great, and we have more stuff to offer than beaches! The sand dunes, our old Spanish churches, and yes, even the very touristy strip in Vigan, Calle Crisologo has its charms.  And best of all, it has not been commercialized to death like Boracay. 

But this post is not about the places to visit in Ilocos, that´s easy enough to google.

This is about food,  glorious Ilocano food I love.  Food that you must try if you really want to explore Ilocos,  learn its taste and nuances.  Some of the food here are borne out of the homecooking of my relatives,  dishes that my Lolas, Aunties, Mother and our Ilocano helpers cooked for our daily meals.  Some are food that have become so famously connected to our region.  While a few may not yet be as familiar to you , but here they are,  I share them with you,  in the hopes that you would be enjoined to discover a little bit more of Ilocos.  Go and visit the North, enjoy our sun and delight in its culinary offerings.  Know, that somewhere in cold, rainy Europe there are GIs (Genuine Ilocanos) like me, who yearn to have one perfect sunny summer day back home.

 11.  Here are eleven Ilocano food I recommend for you to try when you find yourself in Ilocos.   I am biased of course,  as these are my comfort food.  But just in case, you want my small advice,  here they are,  the eleven things you must eat in Ilocos.

Pinakbet, the Ilocano way
    Ilocano pakbet: No kalabasa( squash)!  Stewed not sauteed!  (Image from

Fact:  The Tagalog Pinakbet that we all know could not be more different from the pakbet (short for pinakbet) I grew up eating.   Truth: the first time I ate pakbet tagalog, I was  perplexed!  What they labeled as pakbet was nothing but guinisang kalabasa ( sauteed squash) with a few other vegetables thrown in!  I am not saying that the Tagalog Pinakbet is bad, it´s not, I enjoy it too.  But to my mind  it´s ginisang gulay (sauteed vegetables) and not pinakbet. 

The Ilocano pinakbet is not sauteed  but stewed.  The vegetables are layered in a broth of water,  tomato, fish bagoong, and onions. The vegetables are layered and the pot is covered.  When I was younger, I would watch my grandmother shake the covered pot halfway through the cooking time.  I suppose that´s to meld the flavors of the dish.  At our home, my mother still does that, potholders and all,  giving a vigorous shake to our pakbet  a few minutes before serving.  In Ilocos, the pinakbet can have a variety of vegetables  depending on what is available.  It usually  has sitaw (string beans), okra, talong (eggplant), sigarilyas(winged bean), ampalaya(bitter melon),  siling haba (long chili), tomatoes, malunggay fruit (moringa fruit) and kamote(sweet potato). But never with kalabasa (squash).  The pinakbet is usually topped with leftover broiled or fried fish or chunks of chicharon (crispy fried pork).  Every  Ilocano has his own ideal pinakbet.  I am a purist when it comes to my pinakbet, so my ideal pinakbet has no meat at all, just veggies cooked with just  fish bagoong and a bit of patis,  the vegetables stewed in tomatoes, allowing their own natural sweetness to develop.  My favorite meal growing up was a bowl of all my all-veggie pinakbet, unlimited rice, and of course,  a side dish of Chicharon chunks.

Visitors to Ilocos can try Pinakbet in countless eateries, but really, if you are so lucky to be invited to an Ilocano home, go, ask them for Pinakbet.  Because when it comes to  savouring Pinakbet, the home cooked version is always tops.

Chicharon (Bagnet)
I don´t exactly know how the term bagnet  came to be. All my life, I called it  chicharon.  That´s how everyone in our small municipality in Ilocos called it.  But chicharon by any other name is still the same unctuous, life-changing food that is decadent, sinful but unrelentingly tempting --- that crisp porky skin, the strong unmistakable yet clean porcine flavor, and those meltingly soft layers of fat in between strips of lean meat.  Ay!  I can live my days without lechon, in fact, aside from the skin, there´s really nothing I like about lechon baboy.  But give me chicharon every day and I will be happy for the rest of what would possibly be my hastened but decadent life.
    Image from

Chicharon is always available at any Ilocos wet markets, but note that not all wet markets in Ilocos are open daily.  To ensure you´ll have your fill of bagnet,  go buy them at the Laoag or Batac markets.  In our town, the market isn´t open everyday and there is still  what we call aldaw ti tienda ken  uraga, roughly speaking, it translates to market and butcher day, the day when one of the town´s butcher does his thing.  Of course part of what is butchered is made into chicharon,   and there is nothing as delicious as freshly made chicharon, skin still blistering from the heat.  We´d usually we´d reserve a kilo or two of this freshly cooked chicharon.  Chicharon, while great in itself, served as is, is really more of an ingredient in Ilocos cooking.  We portion cubes  to add to our pakbet, chop it up, mix it with papaya and pig blood for dinardaraan, or as a side dish to our mostly all vegetable dishes of dinengdeng and inabraw.  Yes, Ilocanos are matipid (thrifty), even when it comes to chicharon :-)

Inartem (Pickled Fruits)
    All sorts of Inartem: Manga, Singkamas, and my favorite, Balayan

If you love sour stuff you will be addicted to Inartem.  Inartem literally means "pickled", and in Ilocos, we pickle everything ---- mangoes, turnips, karamay (asian gooseberries), santol (cotton fruit), balayang (wild banana), doused in  a potent mixe of Ilocos vinegar , pepper and some sugar.

Every summer until high school, I was sent off to Ilocos to live with my grandparents.  Those were the happiest days of my life,  afternoons spent with my cousins doing stuff that I could never do in the city ----  we climbed and fell off trees,  went to small adventures to the nearby river trying to gather freshwater crabs, we fearlessly walked through farmlands,  helped plant peanuts and corn, and when the rain came, we ran outside and looked for frogs under the rocks, poked them and watched with glee as they jumped like crazy away from us.  It was during my summer stay in Ilocos that I developed my love for inartem.  

My cousins and I are mad for Inartem.  It is sour, tart, sweet, with a hint of spice, and made with all natural ingredients  What´s not to like?  How much do I love Inartem?  So much, that one christmas, a couple of years ago.  I asked for a big jar of Inartem na Balayan (pickled wild bananas) as a gift. And ate it all myself, mwahaha!
    Inartem na Papaya is mouth-puckering delicious!

When I was younger,  Inartem was always available at our town´s market but now it´s a bit harder to find.  However, if you are in Batac,  there is a row of Inartem stalls close to the Marcos Museum.  Every visit to our hometown always requires a trip to Batac, if only to hoard on jars of inartem and eat Miki and Empanada at Batac´s Riverside stalls.

Royal Bibingka
Royal Bibingka (rice cake)  is our favorite pasalubong from Ilocos Sur.  These small round golden disks of slightly burned, melt-in-your-mouth soft, cheesy-sweet deliciousness will always be my idea of  the perfect bibingka.  It is sooo good, I  can eat six of these in one sitting.  These goodies are the specialty of the towns of Bantay and Vigan  in Ilocos Sur.  The two most famous brands of Royal Bibingka are Sisters´ and Marsha´s.  I personally prefer Sisters because they´re softer but the rest of the family likes Marsha´s better because they´re a bit sweeter.  The shops of Marsha´s and Sisters´ are along the National Highway so if you are coming from Ilocos Norte going to Manila, you will pass by their stores.  Most Northbound buses also pass by one of these stores to give the passengers the opportunity to buy pasalubongs (gifts).

The first time I tried Dodol,  I was still a child.  My grandma and I went to a small town party.  In our town, at least in the late 80s,  a party meant that the women and men of the town would gather together at the party venue hours before  to prepare for the celebration, each helping in some way ----the men would butcher the pig and chickens,  the women would prep the vegetables and ingredients, some would,  others would gather plates, pans, glasses,  and some would stay behind after the party is finished to help with the washing of dishes and aftercare.  Looking back, I realize now that it was a  beautiful form of Bayanihan, that Filipino trait of helping each other, that belief that there is immeasurable strength in numbers.

At that party, I became engrossed with watching two women take turns mixing blobs of  brown goop in a gigantic kawali (Filipino wok) over slow fire.  I remember getting bored watching them after a few minutes.  And then when it was time to eat,  these women took the cooled kawali filled with a delicious-looking caramel colored mass, and began cutting squares of the brown stuff for us.  It was the first time I tried Dodol, and oh man, it was like the best native sweet I have ever tried.  It is so hard to describe the mouthfeel. It´s similar to maja blanca but a little bit firmer.  It tastes of coconut, panocha, and burnt caramel.  There is nothing like it.  When I lived for a few months in Malaysia,  I discovered that they also had Dodol,  and it was similar to the dodol of my beloved Ilocos, except that the Malaysian dodol I´ve tried had a bit of a bite compared to the silky texture of my Ilocos dodol.

Because making dodol is difficult and time consuming ,  finding it can be a challenge.  Most big markets in Ilocos would have it, displayed with our other native sweets --- patupat ( a sort of rice suman) and tupig (sweet rice logs).  Among these three, I like dodol best.
Brown Squares of Dodol: Delicious! (Image from

Igado  (The Ilocos version of Menudo)
While most kids in Manila grew up eating and loving menudo.  My brother and I lived for igado.   And if I  think about it now, Igado is like the Ilocano version of menudo.  And even now, grown up that we are,  it is Igado, together with pinakbet and chicharon, that I request for my first meal at home every time I go home to the Philippines.

Igado is made of pork tenderloin strips and liver,  green and red bell peppet, and green peas.  The way my mother does her Igado, she soaks the pork tenderloin in patis and pepper for an hour or so in the ref, and then sautes the meat and the liver in onions and garlic,  then she pours a measure of ilocos vinegar, pepper and patis and cooks the dish with veggies (green peas or sometimes chickpeas, bell pepper).  Igado is slightly sour, peppery, and full of pork umami. It is for me a robust, hearty fare to be eaten with cupfuls of rice.

Miki with its nuclear orange colored broth is the Ilocano version of Chicken soup.  It´s freshly cut miki noodles in a thick broth of chicken.   That nuclear orange color is due to the atsuete(annato) seeds. Shredded and cooked chicken meat is sauted in atsuete-infused oil and lots of garlic, then cupfuls of chicken broth is added and finally the noodles.  If you eat Miki in restaurants or eateries, it is often served with a boiled egg and topped with crushed chicharon (bagnet).  But in our home, we prefer the basic chicken soup without the egg and chicharon.  We also add a spoonful of Ilocos vinegar and a dash of pepper to the Miki.  It´s weird, but I grew up eating miki like this.
Some people expect this soup to taste like chicken mami and get offended when the anise-like flavor of atsuete hits them, so here´s a warning, although it looks like mami,  our Ilocos miki tastes totally different.  And for me that´s a good thing.


Ah Empanada, these fried orange shells made of ground rice are the quintessential Ilocos snacks . We love them.  If it was up to me, I´d eat these goodies every single day. Filled with mongo sprouts, papaya slivers, an egg, and longganisa,  this is not the empanada of Spanish lore.  This is our own super Pinoy version of empanada using the ingredients that are abundant in Ilocos --- rice, mungbeans, papaya, eggs and off course, our native sausages, what the rest of the Philippines call as Ilocos longganisa. These empanada stalls are ever present in Ilocos towns, congregating  near the town Plazas.   My Ilocos memories are filled with empanda eating.  When day after day, we would flock to these stalls in the late afternoon for our daily fill of Empanada, a perfect merienda to sustain us before dinner. Decades of eating empanada and I still love it to bits. Proof?  The in January, when I went home to Ilocos,  I ate at least three empanadas each day.

Dinardaraan (Dry Dinuguan)
Dinardaraan literally means ¨bloodied" or cooked with blood. It is called by its tagalog name, dinuguan, in other parts of the Philippines.  One thing that set´s apart the  Ilocos version is that our dinardaraan is cooked dry, until the pork blood coagulates into a sort of mushy pudding consistency.  Eversince I can remember, I have preferred my dinardaraan this way.  The pork in the dinardaraan sauteed and pan fried until crispy or sometimes chunks of chicharon is used, the dish into cooked until the blood turns into mush--- good, velvety chocolate colored mush enveloping chunks of crispy pork.  Is it any wonder why I got a little bit surprised when the crispy dinuguan from a popular restaurant in Manila became such a big thing, like really? I´ve been eating crispy dinuguan all my life! So yes, it is delicious!  And so good, that it is the only type of dinuguan I like. 

Ilocos Longganisa
              Image from

One of the favorite pasalubongs from Ilocos is our famous Longganisa. Ilocos is garlic country,  we plant garlic year after year, it´s a good cash crop in this part of the Philippines.  And our love for garlic certainly shines through in our  favorite homegrown sausage.  Our longganisas are garlicky, with no hint of sweetness.  I actually love my Ilocos longganisa with visible chunks of fat that´s redolent of garlic. Plates of this longganisa plus sinangag (garlic rice) and eggs is our version of a hearty breakfast.

Not all chichacorn(cornicks) are created equal.  You will see a lot of chichacorn on offer at the pasalubong centers all over Ilocos, but believe me, nothing beats the crunch and clean flavors of Nana Rosa Chichacorn.  I don´t know their secret. Is it their drying and frying method? Or is it the type of corn they use?  But they have the best chichacorn in the world (including those produced in Spain, which I´ve snacked on for two when a craving for chichacorn ensues in faraway Europe).   Nana Rosa´s store and factory is in Paoay but there are some pasalubong shops in Laoag and Batac which carries them too.  At only 40 pesos for a 160 grams packs,  it´s an awesome, guaranteed delicious and inexpensive pasalubong.  When in Ilocos, drop by Nana Rosa´s in Paoay and hoard on these delicious snacks!

So that´s my list of the foods you should try if you do find yourself in Ilocos.  I hope this little post made you want to go to Ilocos.  Go, discover Ilocos,  our food,  beaches, our heritage sites,  the smiles of Ilocanos, go!  Race through our sand dunes, eat pinakbet, walk through a time bubble at our Spanish age churches and buildings.  And while you´re at it, remember, there´s be one girl in faraway NL who´s wishing she were in your shoes!


  1. Boohoo, I want to unsee this. My boyfriend told me we will not go past Metro Manila this summer, and just when I decided I can wait to see the other parts of Philippines another year, I have to stumble across this post. TT___TT Especially the pickled fruits... I love pickles to death and it sounds like something I would love. And you made dodol sound like something I have to taste before I die.

    BTW, of course we had the tarts in Portugal, I would never leave the country before trying them - though our Portugese classmates are a good source of delicious pastries too, whenever they stop by home. :)

  2. Halo-halo looks so delicious!! I have desire to have it. I had attended a Philippines styled party at one of the local party city locations NY and tasted this dessert over there. I wonder if you can share the recipe for this Filipino frozen dessert!

  3. Hi benihalk! Thanks for visiting! Yes, one day I´ll throw a halo-halo and lumpia party and I´ll share the recipes here :-)

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  5. Does anyone know where I can purchase Nana Rosa's chichacorn on-line? I live in Hawaii, and I can't find this anywhere here despite the large Filipino population.


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