Friday, March 4, 2011


These innocent vegetables, otherwise known as eggplant, sweet gourd, and stringbeans form the staple in Ilocano vegetable cuisine. Throw in the slimy saluyot, the leafy marunggay and its eat-by-your-teeth fruit (the green stalk that bears eating resemblance with the artichoke), slice some bitter ampalaya, mix in some tomatoes, pound a few slivers of ginger, drop a teardrop or two of bagoong to flavor the broth—and you will have covered what it takes to do a pinakbet or a dinengdeng. Green when harvested, these vegetables turn dark and wrinkle-y when cooked; as dark and lined as the farmers who harvest them.

The land from which these vegetables sprung is one of the most punishing landscapes in the north. Ask any old timer in Hawaii and most likely they will agree.

The place can have excruciating summers. The sun oppresses everything to dust. While inside, the earth heats at the core. And soon the land cracks open. Even the towering churches of Paoay, Sarrat and St. Williams with its massive, muscular buttresses tremble when earthquakes make their unannounced visits. On the other hand, summer’s spouse, the monsoon rains, can lash hard and heavy like a cigar-smoking Manang Biday dressed in an inabel saya poised with a kalesa whip. In any given year, there is no telling when the wind and rain will conspire to turn into a rampaging typhoon. When that happens, the Ilocos loses its moorings. The land mass floats like a sinking ship into the angry China Sea. Howling wind. Water surging everywhere seeking the lowest plain. Vegetables are uprooted, farm animals drown, the water sweeps away verything in its path including (in the olden days) one or more of the wooden bridges that connect the towns to each other.

Despite the regularity of this occurrence, the Ilocos—unlke the Titanic—never sank. What always happens is that, like the enduring sun, the Ilocano rises again and again and again.

Growing up Ilocano, pinakbet was not my favorite dish. Almost always looking murky to dark on the plate, the pinakbet and dinengdeng was too much of a connection to the hard work that was needed to coax life out of dry soil. I demanded something livelier and more colorful from my food. Happily, that requirement was not hard to find.

When the summer is just right, the backyards bear fruits. There is always something pink, orange, or rust-colored to crack open, bite into or slurp on. Or to dip in salt, sugar, vinegar or anchovy. From the earth, there would be other red, yellow and purple things to boil or roast. Or dry under the sun and save for a rainy day. Or marinate in earthen jars as an insurance against an unforseen drought. And from the sea that ran along the coasts from Currimao to Pagudpod came a bountiful rainbow catch that one could even eat raw.

Visiting the sea, we would buy ar-arosit from fishermen fresh from their diving. This sea weed looks like tiny green grapes that make happy popping sounds as one bites down on it. Its cousin, the gamet, the black sea weed closer in appearance to the Japanese nori, transforms elegantly when bathed in hot water. Like the men in a barrio dance standing under a string of weak bulbs and the stars, the gamet softens, glides and dances a slow waltz with the slices of red tomatoes that go with this dish. Whatever the sweet Manongs and Manangs of Hawaii say, Ilocos to me, in the summers that I spent there, was a reminder of harvests.

Obvious, too, is the people’s deep connection to protein. When the occasion calls for it, the Ilocano—having been taught well by the vagaries of nature—grabs the opportunity and dines royally on meat in its many forms.

The Ilocano longganisa comes first to mind. Garlic and lots of it are mixed with minced pork marinated in black vinegar, pepper and salt and stuffed into long undivided intestine coils. The absence of divisions is a detail that sets this apart from the sausage concoction of other regions. One can slice the sausage to suit the length of one’s appetite. It also underscores the Ilocano penchant to save on the proverbial string.

Other meat dishes, like adobo, igado, dinardaraan, for example share culinary provenance from various influences. The Ilocano adapts and is no stranger to fusion. Yet, the predominance of garlic in the cooking identify these dishes as Ilocano-made in the same way that the use of coconut milk and chili distinguishes the inclination of another region.

But to me, if there is only one meat you need to eat. Bagnet it is, the King, the one meat that will lord over all.

Innocently sitting on a plate, it whispers: “Eat me… Eat me….!!!”

And one replies after the first bite: Apa unay iti imas nan!

How can it not land at the top of a carnivore’s love list with its crest of golden crunchy crust that oozes with the delictable fat? And that’s just from looking at it.

The bagnet has been enjoyed in Ilocos since God created the pig, the repository of all things cholesterol. The habit of eating bagnet on birthdays, weddings, baptisms and all ocassions in between predates the heart surgeries pioneered by Dr. Christian Barnard. It will continue even after the discovery of the aerobics exercise. Diet fads may come and go but this dish will remain a national and extra-territotrial culinary favorite.

Bagnet is seldom eaten alone. The lechon, it’s variant famous in some other region, is flavored with tanglad or eaten with liver sauce. But the bagnet emerges iconic and triumphant with the troika of kamatis, bagoong, and lasuna in attendance. That the initials of the side dish spell KBL (echoing the most powerful political party headed by Apo Marcos, the most powerful Ilocano of the time) is telling of another facet of the people. Nationally profiled as frugal, the Ilocano people are never dull. Their tongue-in-cheek humor, similar to a double-bladed knife, can simutaneously rib and pay homage to authority.

And more importantly, as basi is my witness, we certainly know how to imbibe. Ilocanos love their tipple and will defend their right to enjoy it. When Spain, in 1807, decreed a monopoly on the production and drinking of wine, including basi, the whole of basi-producing Ilocos protested and rose in arms. Others may look on this event as a juvenile exercise in defense of the right to party. But scholars of recent vintage have posited a new way of looking at this event.

In certain civilizations, the scholars postulate, wine—being more than a drink—was a bridge to an altered state of consciousness. Inebriation was a means to enter the spiritual realm; a venue of communion with God similar to the ritual of the Catholic Mass. The prohibition to produce basi was more than a threat to livelihood. It was a repression of a set of spiritual beliefs and practices that were held by the ancient Ilocanos even before the Spaniards came. In short, the Ilocanos, in declaring war, were more than just being troublemakers for its sake. They were trying to uphold their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

(By the same logic, the Ilocano practice of eating dog meat in ancient times had a spiritual significance. But let me reserve that for another essay.)

The chain of events that led to what historians would eventually refer to as the Basi Revolt of 1807 has been memorialized by Esteban Pichay-Villanueva 14 years after it occurred. The painter is genealogically connected to me by name. And to my Tatang by his profession: a fisherman.

How he, who only worked with boat and net, managed to manipulate oil with a watercolor brush to paint 14 scenes upon the request of some patron remains a delicious conundrum. Sad that no other paintings made by him survive. The aknowledged great Filipino painter before my Lolo Teban is, of course, Juan Luna, another Ilocano from Badoc. He of Spoliarium fame had years of art training under reknowned teachers and at the Escuella de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Spain. On the other hand, when asked to paint, Lolo Teban, barely knowing the language of perspective and proportion, simply painted. When you look at the paintings as it now hangs in the Burgos Museum in Vigan, it becomes obvious what an excellent naif art it is. How did he do it? Some people attribute the feat to some inate spirit that spurs the Ilocano to grab at an opportunity and give it his all.

But also, there is a strong animo that guides the Ilocano to pack bags and ride carabao to settle elsewhere in search of a better home. Since the beginning of the 19th century, Ilocanos have been re-settling. First, to other parts of Luzon. And like my Tatang and Nanang in the late 1940’s, farther south in areas such as Zamboanga and Cotabato. Then in the 1950’s, to venture by boat to the pineapple plantations of Hawaii. It is said that at the recruitment line, the farmers only had to show their thick calloused hands to get the job. Those hands helped jumpstart the US pineapple canning industry.

Driven by need, the Ilocano is ambition personified. They maximize whatever skills they have and make sure they come out of a game better than when they started. And because they have been born to harsh surroundings, they are used to working harder. And more importantly, amidst set-backs, they endure. Maybe they turned out this way because of all the meat that they eat. Or the basi in their gene pool. Who knows?

On the subject of drinking, the dish du jour is the imbaliktad. Back in the day when farmers celebrated, a cow was slaughtered in a clearing near an open field. Within minutes, a chunk of red meat would be sliced and thrown in a very hot skillet to be quickly turned over (imbaliktad) and taken out of the heat to be sliced and dunked in black vinegar to be enjoyed by all.

As for the serious mam-martek of old, men who took to heavy drinking and their machismo seriously, I understand that the pulutan of choice is dinakdakan, grilled pig’s face, ears and fatty bits shopped finely into squares, mixed with onion and smothered in creamy pig brain. Take that, Mr. Bourdain. Eaten on a regular basis, dinakdakan can shorten a life span faster than you can say heart attack.

My grandfather—who I recall, was referred to respectfully by others as Don Cleto—ate everything meat. Chicken, pig, goat, deer, rabbit, bird, monitor lizard, snake. Did he eat dog? I don’t recall. It could be safe to say that, domesticated or wild—just like any other Ilocano—he ate them all. And following the French—he may have tried everything at least once.

I grew up in the 60’s a Manila Boy. I lived a childhood supervised by aunts who served as my mothers—characters all from an Almodovar movie—in a house that my grandfather owned in the old district of Quiapo. We had a smattering of Ilocano neighbors. But the real Ilocano enclave in Manila in the 60’s was on and around the streets of Dapitan.

My Lolo Cleto made sure that he built a strong house of many rooms to better accommodate the growing clan. And so it was that cousins, close or distant, sought temporary lodgings in the house by Pax Street as they finished their studies in Manila.

Almost every month, a cousin/lodger would receive a pao-it from his or her parents from the province. Even then, the Ilocano already had the extraordinary penchant and persistent need to send and/or receive balikbayan boxes. The care package of medium size, sent from Laoag the night before, would arrive in Manila the next morning always looking travel-weary and dishevelled. Most likely than not, a corner of the cardboard box would be seeping oil betraying the riches within; Or reeking of vinegar that announced the breakage of the bottle containing the mukhasim-inducing inartem. I would get the knife, cut the string that held the karton in place, flip the soggy top open and see Ilocos reflected by its bounty. Fried meat, vegetables and fruits galore. When a town fiesta was celebrated days before, I would open a box and find myself face to face with the head of a pig. Around it would be a necklace of chewy tupig wrapped in banana leaves, the loot encrusted with rounds of golden bibingka, quivery dudol. It is not hard to imagine these same rice concoctions were shared by our early ancestors with the Spanish platoon led by Juan de Salcedo when the military contingent from Intramuros first marched into Ilocano territory in 1571. There is pleasure in knowing that these foods, just like the Ilocanos who made them, have not only travelled in space, but also in time.

In the early days, air travel was like going to the moon. It was restrictive even to really rich people. And even the Ilocano folks who had the means—always frugal with their luxuries—took to flying only when it was absolutely necessary that they reach Laoag in a hurry. Otherwise, everyone , including my Tiang Caring and I, took a 12-hour overnight bus ride to get to Laoag from Manila—an adventure that one can take even up to now. In those days, half-fare for children was determined by a height marker on the bus. When it was time to be measured, I always slouched low to save on the fare.

The trip was clockwork with pit stops in two places where the passengers were let out and given a chance to stretch their cramped legs and eat a bowl of aroz caldo. You knew you reached the pit stop because the conductor or the driver, as the bus halts to a stop, would rouse the sleeping passengers with “Isbu-isbu apo!” to signal the fifteen minute latrine break. If you were female, the comfort room was inside a squat shack covered in nipa beside the roadside carenderia. If you were male, the grassy side of the road would do. Remember, this was the early 70’s.

By midnight, we would be driving by La Union (the Martial Law curfew that required all transport activity to stop between the hours of midnight to 4 a.m., would still come in 1972). I could never sleep on a night trip. There were so many things to see. Outside the bus window, illluminated by the headlights, the white welcome arches of town after town would loom, whoosh and disappear. We gauged how fast or how slow the trip was by the place we had reached at a certain hour. At four a.m. if we hadn’t passed Vigan, the trip would be late arriving in Laoag. If the ride was uneventful (meaning: no flat tires or engine trouble), the dawn would break on us happy travellers in the first towns of Ilocos Norte. Soon, people would start disembarking along concrete bus stops with the names of politicans painted on its side. I would look forward to seeing the welcome arch announcing Batac. A few more minutes and I would feel the rush of seeing the sign announcing San Nicolas sincerely believing that, because of the namesake, this town was named after me! By the time I saw the top of the sinking bell tower, I knew we had arrived in Laoag.

Lolo Cleto was already in his mid-70’s when, as a child of six, I went visiting. His breakfast of champions was a dish called yusi, a flavorful concoction made from only one main ingredient. You guessed it: meat. Bite sized pork flank and liver are cooked until tender in a clear broth flavored with green chives and salt.

This is how breakfast would go. I would go to the old man seated by the head of the table and kiss him on both cheeks. He always smelled of talcum powder.

Sino ka?”, he would say.

Anak ti anak yo nga ni Floy.”, I would reply.

And recognizing his grandpaternity over me, he would smile and deliver a hug.

The Pichay clan of Vigan, like a majority of the Ilocanos, comes from a mix of races that spanned east and west. In that sense, our DNA was global even before the term came into vogue. The clan’s early roots were probably Chinese as our two-syllable name implies. But we had Spanish in us and probably some Tinggian blood, too. Although Lolo Cleto had almond eyes, he also had an aqualine nose like a church saint. Some of his children looked like him. But some were also dark skinned, curly haired and had wide noses. He spoke only Spanish, English and Ilocano, never Chinese. And he spoke a Tagalog that had a funny accent.

According to family lore, Lolo Cleto was a natural adventurer. When he was about to become of age, a marriage was arranged for him by his parents to a girl not his choosing. Committed to another love, Lolo Cleto eloped with my young Lola Columba. They escaped further north to Laoag with nothing but a leather suit case, raging hormones and a dream. He sired six children. Then his wife died a few years after my father was born. Lolo Cleto mourned and lived a widower’s life for a year. Afterwhich, he married my Lola’s sister, Pinang, which I was told, was not an unusual practice of the times. They had six more children. A son of the primero nuptia, Tio Goyo, died fighting the Japanese in 1945. At family gatherings, he was always remembered as a hero. In his old age, Lolo Cleto lost his teeth but not his hair. His locks only turned white. He never stooped, only became slow in gait.

At the breakfast table he would laddle the hot yusi on my plate until a sea of broth formed around my little mountain of rice. While the elders talked of this and that, I would slurp away barely talking. In those days, eating was a serious business. So serious that in the presence of adults, children were expected to concentrate on their food and not give their opinion on world events. Those mornings, seated on the wood and metal batibot chair, my feet dangling above the floor with no one to talk to, I had no choice but to commune with my yusi: big meat flavor, light and clean on the palate. The meat was light brown and tender; the liver, dark and chewy like clotted blood. Eaten with rice, it warmed my stomach. A perfect prelude to a day of climbing fruit trees, swimming by the Vintar Dam, catching dalag by the irrigation ditch or playing sha-tong by the big, leafy agarlobo tree on dusty Abadilla Street.

In my latest trip to Ilocos, the landscape is again in flux. Massive concrete houses have sprung in the middle of rice fields where nipa huts used to float. A dip in the economy in the 90’s has set another wave of migration causing many an Ilocano and Ilocana professional (public school teacher to nurse) to hold their egos in check while they work as factory workers, or chambermaids, or drivers or machinists in dollar-rich jurisdictions. Some of the architecture of these houses are bizarre, to say the least. Most look like mansions dreamed out of a doll house. And the owners seem to favor bright pink, green and blue. But the scale and grandeur of these visions leave no doubt. These are show pieces: Together with the ubiquitous stainless steel tricycle parked within its gate, to show off the owner’s humble beginnings and the his current place of stature.

In the absence of parents, in the years that they were earning, the foodie that I am makes me wonder: Who has been cooking for the Ilocano’s next generation? Driving by the highway, I see a string of insistent billboards selling burgers and fries. For me, they ruin the scenery.

By the Batac river bank, my friends and I enjoy a pleasant February afternoon walking by the food stalls. The chill of January still in the air. Around us, the Ilocano youth has adapted to digital interconnectedness, texting on phones and face-booking on laptops while munching on crunchy emapanada. The food is big as a hand, the bright orange color making it look like a fried crab. Others are blowing across hot bowls of mami.

We hungrily bite into our orders. The crisp fried rice flour crumbles into the tongue. And then the monggo, shredded papaya, longganisa and egg make their separate entrances. This is real food. The flavors flooding the coves of memory. It links me to my childhood. Like the basi of the ancients, it opens a gateway. It strengthens my identity. It clarifies the pride of my history; defines the Ilocano-ness in me.

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