Wednesday 25 January 2012

Ilocos Norte, Laoag and around

Paoay Church

The food in Laoag is lighter, healthier and fresher then that of Manila. The temperature as you go further north of Luzon gets instantly cooler. The terrain also starts to change, which at the time of travel (early January), at times looked like the South of Italy.  This sets the scene, perfect for growing seasonal vegetables. Pinakbet is a dish seen at nearly every restaurant in Ilocos North. It’s an assortment of local vegetables: bitter gourd, string bean, tomatoes, okra, chilie peppers, winged beans and eggplant, all fried with some onion and garlic. There are a few places in Laoag conjuring up western combinations with pinakbet, like pinakbet pasta, pinakbet curry, and pinakbet pie, but the most interesting and tastiest combination we tried was pinakbet pizza at the Herencia Café opposite the Paoay Church in the town of Paoay.  I thought it would taste a little strange and soggy with so many vegetables on top, but I can safely say it’s the best pizza I’v had in the Philippines so far. The base was thin enough, still crispy, not too cheesy (and not the plasticy stuff either), the vegetables still had a bit to them, and the combination felt healthy and vibrant.

Pinakbet Pizza

As we walked around town, we saw people selling bundles of bamboo with a gold seal around the end. We never really clocked it was food, until we were approached and asked if we wanted to try sticky coconut rice. Sounded delicious, hard to turn down an offer to try free food. The rice had been mixed with grated coconut and placed inside the bamboo. The bamboo is steamed for a while, and vola! sticky coconut rice you have.  A quick yet firm smack on the floor splits the bamboo making it easier to obtain the sticky rice. Care has to be taken though when eating as the edges of the bamboo can be rather sharp. We bought a whole bundle for our trip… little did we realise it was something that had to be eaten within the day, otherwise it dries out and becomes inedible. We ended up chucking half our bundle away, which was a real shame.

Sticky coconut rice in bamboo

A dish which is available pretty much every where in the country, and a dish loved by pretty much every Philippino is sizzling sisig. I eat it regularly when out with friends in Manila. Best served with chips and an ice cold San Miguel. But I never really questioned what went in it. From having tried quite a few sisigs, I got the impression it wasn't just pork mince… I assumed it also had belly fat and maybe even bits of crispy pork skin. A good sisig is fried with onions, chilles, and garlic, then has a raw egg cracked on the top of the sizzling mixture. Some sisigs have been chewy and indigestible, others have been crispy, some have even had more vegetables then meat in it. So I needed to ask the question: “what's in my Sisig?” The answer was not at all what I expected. Apparently sisig is a combination of all the off cuts: head, intestines, liver and ear all chopped up and fried with the remaining ingredients. This got me thinking… I rarely ever see the “other” cuts of pork, like pork chops, pork lion, ham on menus or in supermarkets, it’s always the stranger cuts and either chewy or crispy pork skin. When I questioned what happened to these finer cuts, I was jokingly told: “we chuck ‘em away!”…. “Joke Lang”… “We give ‘em to our dogs!”

Sizzling sisig

So with this knowledge, I seek to find what makes the perfect sisig. What is it that, for Philippinos, makes their best-loved snack super tasty? It will take a lot of research and a lot of tasting and trying of different sisigs. I feel it is something I would be proud of accomplishing during my two months left in the country, to be able to say “I can make a sisig that any Philippino would be proud of!” Check back on my for that one ; )  

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