After our stay in Boracay, the wife and I traveled to Ilocos Norte, a region located in the northern part of the Philippines. More specifically, we would be staying in the town of Badoc and spending the next few days at the family home that my mother grew up in, and in which my Grandfather and another set of cousins (and a whole lot of nieces and nephews) are still residing.
At this point of our trip, we would also be meeting up with my mother (my father stayed home in L.A.). My mom actually flew to the Philippines with the wife and I, but she had been staying in Badoc while we were in Boracay. Considering the fact that my mother can get under my skin when only traveling to the end of her driveway back in California, and that she would be joining us for the remainder of our journey through the Philippines, I knew that my patience would be tested considerably (I'm joking, of course! Well, partly joking).
Even though I've been to Badoc and wandered about the other towns of Ilocos Norte before (once when I was 9 years old, then again at age 22), this place, this headquarters of my family, never ceases to amaze me. And because we'd be surrounded by family, the wife and I would easily fit in and become locals ourselves (who am I kidding, we stuck out like sore thumbs!). At the very least though, I did realize how much Ilocano I understand as I was able to follow along with conversations in the local dialect, and answer any questions back in English (I understand, but I still can't speak Ilocano).
I also knew that most, if not all, of our meals would be homecooked, so I was looking very forward to this leg of our trip. I was not disappointed.
The Best Empanadas
After landing at Laoag airport and being picked up by one of my cousins, we were first whisked away not to the family house, but to a local Empanada vendor in the nearby town of Batac.
I've had empanadas in numerous forms before (various Latin empanadas all over SoCal), but I've never experienced anything like the famed Ilocos Empanada. The Ilocos Empanada consists of a rice flour dough that is colored a bright orange (perhaps from achuete, or maybe even food coloring) and first filled with a small mound of green papaya and mongo beans. Then the mound of papaya and mongo is formed into a crater, into which a fresh egg is cracked.
Then on top of the egg, the meat from some local longanisa is sprinkled on.
The empanada is then folded into a half moon and thrown into some hot oil to fry to a crisp. The Empanadas I had in Batac that night were quite the revelation. They were wonderfully crispy, almost taco-like, and a squirt of dark Ilocos vinegar into the steaming empanada tied all the wonderful flavors of the filling together. These savory meat-filled pastries come in all shapes and sizes in the Philippines, but generally speaking (feel free to correct me), Empanadas south of Ilocos have a flakier crust, are not orange, and are baked instead of fried I think. No matter though, as the Ilocos Empanada in Batac shot to the top of my list as the most bestest empanadas ever times infinity.
The Badoc Public Market
A hop, skip, and a jump away from our temporary home, we ventured to the Badoc Public market the next day to pick up some groceries.
We actually had quite a few longanisas from quite a few regions on our trip. But the longanisa from Batac was hands-down the best Filipino sausage. The Batac longanisa we had was tangy, garlicky, just a tiny bit sweet, and had little globs of soft melty fat throughout the meat. Delicious. Best longanisa and best empanadas--quite a nice showing from Batac.
A quick aside: The Bagnet vs. Chicharon nomenclature for deep-fried pork belly caused a bit of confusion on my part during a dinner I would have in Manila later on in this trip with some other Filipino food bloggers (that is another post for another time--soon). But long story short, pretty much everyone in the Philippines calls deep-fried pork belly "bagnet" and deep fried pork rinds "chicharon", whereas the locals in Ilocos call deep-fried pork belly "chicharon" and deep fried pork rinds "chicharon". It's confusing but true. That's what my mother calls it, that's what my family calls it, and that's actually what the vendor in the market called it. And if you go back and read through my post about Pinakbet, I also refer to chicharon and bagnet interchangeably. I had never even heard of bagnet until I started this blog when readers told me about it. Turns out though that bagnet and chicharon are one and the same if you are in Ilocos. (It's true, just google "bagnet chicharon".)
We weren't completely confined to the towns in Ilocos Norte, we did have a little bit of time to drive into the town of Vigan (a Spanish colonial town with cobblestone streets) for a quick visit to Ilocos Sur (South) as well.
On our way to Vigan, we stopped by a roadside stall to buy some Ilocos moonshine called Basi. Basi is a type of wine, but is made from sugarcane rather than grapes and therefore has a different sort of sweetness about it. If the basi sits and ferments long enough, it will eventually turn into sukang Iloko or Ilocos vinegar--a very dark, pungent, and tasty vinegar.
I ended up buying three bottles of Basi, but only one made it back home with me--I accidently kicked one bottle over and broke it, and the other bottle was swigged by me and my cousin during my final night in the Philippines (good times).
The Vigan Empanadaan was an outdoor collection of empanada vendors in the Vigan town square. Like Batac, Vigan also lays claim to having the best Empanada of Ilocos. I can't say for sure which is better though as we didn't have time to stop in Vigan for more empanadas. But from what I saw at the Vigan Empanadaan, Vigan empanadas look pretty similar to their Batac counterparts and had similar fillings, the Vigan versions are not as orange though.
Yup, that's a pizza. It's the Greenwich Special Overload pizza to be exact from the Greenwich in Vigan (Greenwich is a fast-food chain in the Philippines). I have to give a bit of a disclaimer here though, as one of my cousins is in the R&D department over at Greenwich somewhere in Manila and came up with the concept and recipe for this pizza, as well as for the...
Meat and Cheese Overload pizza. Given the disclaimer above, you can take the following for what it's worth, but the wife and I thoroughly enjoyed these pizzas--I'm not just saying that. The last time I was in the Philippines, I distinctly remember having a pizza that had a tomato sauce on the sweet side of things (generally speaking, Filipinos like sweeter fast foods), and I didn't like it at all. But the pizzas this time around seemed to be geared more towards the Western palate. The Special Overload pizzas were probably the favorite of everyone at our table as it had peppers, onions, and pineapple along with various meats, but I liked the simple meat and cheese as I usually just roll with pepperoni and mushroom here in the states.
We enjoyed the pandesal from this local roadside bakery every morning with our breakfast. But we also had quite a bit of pastries from here as well for our daily meriendas (snacks, or in-between meals).
One of my uncles has a farm near Badoc on which he grows everything from rice, to tobacco, to corn, to mangoes! That's me in the picture above picking mangoes with some pole/net contraption.
Most of the mangoes I picked were green and unripe, but that's a good thing in the Philippines as sour mangoes go well with salty bagoong. But when those mangoes ripened a few days later, WOW!
I've been told by a few of my readers that I should definitely try Philippine mangoes whenever I had the chance, as Philippine mangoes are far superior. I really didn't think much about this, and wondered how good these mangoes can actually be. After eating (many, many, many) mangoes when I was in the Philippines, I can now say this with the utmost sincerity: Philippine Mangoes kick ass. It might sound strange, but Philippine mangoes are completely different from the mangoes available here in the US (the mangoes labeled as "Manila Mangoes" in SoCal are actually grown in Mexico). Philippine mangoes are sweet, but the biggest difference is in their texture--very very smooth. The mangoes I had in the Philippines had almost no stringy fibers in them--it was like eating mango custard! I see the light. And I'm a believer in Philippine mangoes.
Free-range, all-organic, all-natural chickens. These chickens were free-range in the truest sense as they wandered wherever the hell they pleased on my uncle's farm. They lived on a diet of corn, and whatever bugs and grass they chose to put in their beaks.
There were also some hens that laid their eggs in baskets, or also wherever the hell they pleased (i.e. in a boot, a hat, the shady corner of a shed, anywhere). Seeing these chickens was especially exciting because I was reading "The Omnivores Dilemma" during this trip (if you haven't already read TOD, you should--quite the eye-opener).
Although this papaya appears to be wonderfully ripe with its golden hue, it turned out to still be a bit unripe, bland, and hard. No matter though, as we took quite a few green papayas back to the house.
Malunggay leaves are used in a number of Filipino dishes, mostly soups though I think. Combined with one of the chickens we caught from the farm, and some green papayas, the malunggay leaves made a great Tinola (a type of Filipino chicken soup) for us during that week (sometimes chili leaves are used in tinola as well, I think).
Imagine the most sour food you can think of: Lemons, limes, sour patch kids. Now multiply that by 100, lick a battery, and then make your eyes tear up by punching yourself in the nose and you have kamias (AKA bilimbi). Kamias are little green pods that grow on the trunk of a tree and are super duper sour. I've never seen or heard of kamias before, but they were one of the highlights of my trip (I'm serious).
Dipped into some Ilocos sea salt, the fresh kamias made for a great snack (my mouth is watering as I type this). While everyone else in my family was snacking on ensaymadas and other pastries that afternoon, I was indulging in a handful of kamias with salt for my merienda.
Aside from being a great sour snack, kamias made for a great souring agent for a wonderful fish sinigang as well.
Goat caldereta made with tomato sauce, cheese, and liver spread. Even though this caldereta was made with pre-packaged tomato sauce, processed cheese, and canned liver spread, it beat the pants off of my beef caldereta. This goat caldereta was unbelievably good. The goat meat in this dish wasn't gamey at all and the sauce was rich and full of flavor. I've had goat a few times (ok, maybe once) at a party or family get-together here in the states, but I've always avoided goat because of its gameyness and because it wasn't a flavor that I was used to.
In addition to the caldereta, we also had goat kilawin--otherwise known as raw goat meat pickled in vinegar. Kilawin is the same thing as kinilaw, so this pickled goat dish was the same concept as the fish kinilaw I had in Boracay. Besides goat meat, there was also chopped up bits of goat innards and organs in this kilawin as well.
Admittedly, I was quite apprehensive of trying raw goat meat and offal--so I only had a few spoonfulls of this stuff. Considering I didn't get sick, bleed from any orifices, or grow a tail, the goat kilawin was awesome! It also did not taste gamey at all, and honestly, tasted better than the fish kinilaw I had a few days earlier. Looking back, I wish I had eaten more of this stuff--but still not a bad showing for a "westerner".
That's about it for Ilocos. Sure, we went sightseeing to other parts of Ilocos Norte and Sur, but the things I'll remember most from this trip were the meals I shared with my family. And as you can see, a lot of what we ate in Ilocos were homecooked meals. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.