I remember my father, a genuine Ilocano or GI, would always tell his friends that the best empanada can be found in his hometown of Batac in Ilocos Norte. And all our chicharon was no match against the bagnet.
Whenever he sat for dinner, the table was served with pinakbet, and dininding — or inabrao, if not dish of the native saluyot, all of which had the bagoong as their main flavoring. That, he said, was the typical Ilocano meal.
Of course, those were the years when the Ilocanos were also proud to have the “greatest president” as a native from the North.
I never took my father’s remarks seriously on Ilocano cuisine until recently, when I noticed that most of the small kiosks that serve only the so-called Ilocos empanada, longanisa and miki (noodle) have mushroomed in the metropolis and are slowly being transformed into fine restaurants.
That wasn’t surprising the pinakbet, if you notice, has become a favorite vegetable dish “must” both in authentic Filipino restaurants and “turo-turo” joints.
A visit to Batac confirmed that this rustic city has become a major source of bagnet and longanisa that are being brought to Metro Manila daily.
I have to admit the great Ilocano helmsman has long been disgraced, but Ilocano gastronomy that he had influenced the nation has successfully invaded authentic Philippine cuisine.
The pinakbet, a stewed vegetables of eggplant, ampalaya, okra and tomatoes with pork (seasoned with bagoong (thick fish sauce), now even has a Kapampangan, Tagalog, or even Visayan version.
Herencia, a restaurant chain in Ilocos Norte, prides itself of being the “house” of pinakbet pizza, and lately, the bagnet pizza.
Bagnet is described in one online recipe site as merely “a cross between chicharon and lechon kawali where the lean meat is crispy but not dry and the pork skin with all the pork is fried to a crisp.”
The frying is reportedly done into two stages – first at a low temperature to dry out its moisture without splattering the oil before its final frying in fairly hot oil until it turned golden brown.
Although generally popularly known now as “Ilocos empanada”, Vigan and Batac are competing to be the “best” of its kind in the north.
The Vigan empanada has a thinner crust and is pale in color, compared to the Batac or Laoag empanada, which is said to have achuete as its food color.
In Vigan, the empanada can come with only a filling of egg, mongo sprouts and green papaya, which makes it a bit vegetarian. But the Vigan and Batac empanada should always have the garlic-laden longanisa to make it special.
At Glory’s, a popular food stall near the Batac Cathedral, the cooks said that unlike other empanadas, the Ilocano version is prepared with a crispy rice crust, and not the ordinary flour.
Due to the Ilocos empanada’s growing popularity, the stall owner, Gloria Aduana Cocoson was even invited in 200 to talk on the “art of empanada making” at the Philippine International Convention Center of then Ilocos Norte Governor Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos. Four years later, she received a prestigious award in a food festival held in Batac for her successful mass production of the Batac empanada
Traditionally, the empanada uses the Ilocos (black) vinegar, which is often mixed with sili. But lately, the empanada stalls have been served it with either vinegar or catsup.
In Manila, topnotch chef Sandy Daza came out with his own version of the dinakdakan, which is a poplar appetizer dish, made of boiled and grilled pig parts, including the ears, liver and paste. The authentic dinakdakan also uses pig brain.
Daza, who owns the Wooden Spoon, said he found it funny that Filipino restaurants are fond of serving “fusion food.”
“Look at Thai restaurants. Tourists go there because they are looking for authentic Thai food and now they are accepted internationally,” he said.
At least, the Ilocano gastronomy, continues its way to the popular restaurants, with its notable flavor of bagoong, garlic and the black vinegar. Indeed, the authentic ingredients of an authentic northern dish.