Thursday, January 30, 2014

New Look for an Old Favorite - Saramsam in Laoag City

After the successful paradigm shifting dinner at La Preciosa, I was ready for the second part of Operation: Raise the Flag for Ilocano Cuisine.  I knew that my "guests" had been suitably impressed with the food at dinner the night before (a far far cry from the mediocre food at the hotel -- which shall remain nameless).  
Now it was time to deliver the coup de grace ... lunch at Saramsam, home of inventive yet true Ilocano cooking.
Saramsam has moved from its former location along Rizal Street (a few steps away from La Preciosa) and is now beside bed and breakfast Balay da Blas -  Mr. Sammy Blas owns both.

I have long admired Mr. Blas' refined and elegant style which is now more evident in Saramsam's new and bigger digs.  As in La Preciosa, the ambience is that of a Filipino home but Saramsam raises the taste level by several notches.

Because it is now in a bigger location, Saramsam has different rooms where the dining tables are set.   The place may be full but since you are seated apart from each other, it can feel as if you are the only ones in the place.
I so loved the new look -- lots of Filipiniana on the walls, discreet and soft lighting, comfortable eclectic furniture and a old fashioned cloth "fan" on the ceiling, similar to the ones you could find in aristocratic houses during the Spanish times.  Of course this one is merely a ceiling treatment and there is no one to gently fan you during your meal but it does add a nice touch.

Alcoves are set throughout the restaurant which are perfect for romantic tables for two.

Capiz windows, wooden cut outs that are used as lighting diffusers show just how perfectly old and new are blended together.

Even the counter leading to the kitchen has been given a stylish treatment.

Mr. Sammy Blas was fortunately around and he graciously made sure we would try the best the house had on hand.  These pitchers of cold tamarind juice were so refreshing and tart enough to spike the appetite.

Dragon fruit has been farmed in Ilocos these past years.  Saramsam makes use of the dragon fruit flower as filling in this delicious vegetarian lumpia.

Ukoy is given a very light an crisp treatment -- so addictingly good, we had to order another plate.

I made sure I would enjoy my vegetables.  This native "salad" of string beans and squash blossoms is a delight.

I also ordered a simple vegetable soup --  so light and clean tasting, with the sweetness of the fresh vegetables and nothing else.  It reminded me of the ilonggo version called "laswa" that I also like.

Another of my Saramsam favourites is nilengta nga ikan -- a slightly sour fish dish that is a cross between paksiw and sinigang.  It tasted so good with the fish bagoong.

 As in last night's dinner, I pulled out all the stops and ordered as many of Saramsam's specialties as I could.  The table groaned with dish after dish of Ilocano favourites.  Not surprisingly, we finished everything on the table.  Operation: Raise the Flag for Ilocano Cuisine was a rousing success!

For dessert, we ordered the very typical Ilocano sweet called inkalti.
Saramsam's take on it was to transform it into a fondue using fried saba bananas and camote with a dip of hot caramelised syrup with glutinous rice balls or bilo bilo.
In one fell swoop, Saramsam elevated this ordinary sweet to fine dining status,  as Sammy Blas has likewise done with other simple and genuine Ilocano dishes in his menu.
I believe that Saramsam is at the forefront of maintaining the authenticity of Ilocano cuisine and at the same fusing it with contemporary and modern tastes.
Long may it live and prosper!

An Ilocano Dinner at La Preciosa in Laoag and the best Carrot Cake in Northern Luzon!

In Ilocos Norte for work this January, I suddenly found myself the de facto expert on Ilocano food in a group of foodies (which included three professional chefs!)  who had not been to this part of the world and thus did not know much about how good genuine Ilocano food is.
We were billeted in a hotel with painfully lacklustre food so I felt it was incumbent upon me to raise the flag for Ilocano cooking and show them just how amazing local cuisine could be. 

I took the group for dinner at La Preciosa in Laoag City -- where I knew they would be impressed by the simplicity and authenticity of the cooking.  

The restaurant is located in a converted house along Rizal Street.  Racks of baked goods and traditional Ilocano pasalubong like chichacorn, native wine, biscuits and even baking supplies are what greet you when you come in.

There are varieties of cakes in the chiller -- La Preciosa is also known for its pastries and they even do wedding cakes and catering.

Family photos line the walls as you climb up to the dining room on the second floor.  It certainly makes you feel at home -- as if you had been invited to dinner.

 The feel  is decidedly 60's -- think of all those old Filipino movies you used to watch as a child.  I felt as if I had stepped back a few decades and half expected Susan Roces in a bouffant hairdo and a party dress to suddenly materialise in the room.

La Preciosa is known for its authentic and home cooked Ilocano food.
Since I wanted to wash away the bad taste of hotel food from our guests' palates I knew I could blow them away by ordering almost all of La Preciosa's specialities.  We started with poque poque -- a creamy egg, tomato and grilled eggplant dish and higado -- another Ilocano standard.

How about some sinanglaw -- a soup of cow's innards and some greens.  It's the Ilocano riff on pinapaitan.

If I were not vegetarian, I would have finished this small dish of insarabasab all by myself.  As it is, I had to sigh and grit my teeth while everyone pronounced this grilled pork, thinly sliced and flavoured with onions, vinegar and calamansi as really excellent.
But then, I knew that already.

Of course, bagnet had to be on the table.  La Preciosa's bagnet came with a side salad of tomatoes, green onions, siling labuyo (bird's eye chili) and fish bagoong.

I also made them try dinardaran or the Ilocano version of dinuguan which serves up the meat as pre- fried adding a crunchy, chewy texture to this traditional blood stew.

I had to have something to eat amidst this meat overload so I ordered ipon -- which is dulong in Ilocano.  These small silvery fish are sometimes mistaken for tiny shrimp or alamang.
The ipon was very fresh and needed hardly any other ingredients -- just a bit of ginger, onions and finger chili.
I sometimes wonder when I am eating these delicate things if I am not contributing to their early extinction -- sustainability issues come to mind.

Finally -- the fitting finale to this Ilocano feast -- a very western dessert but something that everyone who comes to La Preciosa inevitably orders.
Their carrot cake is freshly baked, moist, meltingly good and just unbelievably delicious.
The pastry chef in our midst had high praises for it.
It was too bad that there were only two slices left to order so the 7 of us had to share.
As the local "host",  I had to sacrifice my cravings and sadly declined a second bite.
Reason enough to return and possibly eat a slice or two next time I am in Laoag!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Stroll around Paoay Church

I happened to be in Ilocos Norte for work a couple of weeks ago and "work" just happened to be in the vicinity of that magnificent legacy of the Augustinian order -- St. Augustine Church in Paoay.  In between meetings, I took the chance to enjoy a walk around the church in the middle of an unusually cool January afternoon.

When the Augustinians came to the Philippines, they were assigned to evangelise the Ilocos provinces.  Thanks to this territorial assignment, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur have a number of well preserved samples of historic church architecture.  One of the most famous is the church in Paoay --  also a UNESCO world heritage site.

St. Augustine or San Agustin Church, was built in the 1700s and is a fusion of baroque and gothic architecture.   It is made of bricks and coral stone.  It is supported on both sides by the grandest and most solid looking buttresses that I have ever seen in a church in the Philippines.  
These massive buttresses give the church an air of monumental strength and permanence.  They also serve a very practical function -- protecting the church from being destroyed by a strong earthquake.

The bell tower, made of lighter coral stone, is built separate and away from the main church.  It is  a safe distance away so that in case of an earthquake and possible collapse,  it will not fall on the main church.

Lucky for me, the imposing main door is open in the middle of afternoon.  Most of the time, churches keep the main door closed when there are no services.  There are many treasures inside so some form of security must be in place.

This stained glass window of San Agustin gives me a welcome blessing.

Inside, the church is simple and exudes a spiritual and solemn air.  From the exterior, you will not notice how deep and long the church is until you step inside.  Look up and notice the centuries old logs that criss cross and hold up the roof.

I exited through the side entrance and found this garden area.  This sign posted at the entrance tells the story of San Agustin and the Augustinians in Ilocos Norte.

The garden is a riot of flowers and colours.  The buttresses have not been spared the encroachment of greenery and all kinds of vines and weeds have taken root.

From the front of the church, you won't see this garden but it's definitely worth a visit.  While not exactly a model of landscaping or horticultural excellence, I discovered something that made San Agustin's garden a must see.

Almost overgrown with various flowers and weeds are scale models of the renowned Augustinian churches in Ilocos Norte.  If you don't have time to visit these various Baroque churches, a stroll through the garden will give you an idea of just what you may have missed.
I am fortunate to have visited almost all of these churches but it was still a joy to walk around and see them again in miniature.
This is the model of St. Anne's church in Piddig.

The church on the left is San Nicolas of Tolentino which you will find in Vintar, north of Laoag.  The bigger one on the right is San Andres in Bacarra, much visited for its  partially earthquake destroyed bell tower.

On the left is the elegant Santa Monica Church in Sarrat which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, a few days after "someone" used it for a lavishly ostentatious wedding.  Talk about instant karma.  The church on the right is St. William's church in Laoag.

This is  San Agustin church. The model hardly does justice to the original.

This is the Immaculate Conception church that you can find in Batac.  Across the Batac church plaza, you can also find some of the best empanadas available in Ilocos Norte.

St. John the Baptist church in Badoc also has buttresses on the side, albeit much smaller than those in San Agustin church.  Badoc is where you can find the Juan Luna museum in the Luna ancestral home.

St. Joseph Church in Dingras was completely razed by fire in the early 1900s but amazingly, its grand facade remained standing and is still quite a sight to see.   You can walk around it and have a glimpse of how glorious the original church must have been.

And finally, this is another church dedicated to San Nicolas found in San Nicolas.  

After that walk through San Agustin's garden, time for less ecclesiastical pursuits -- how about some souvenir shopping?  Across the road from the church is a strip mall, Paoay style.  There are a number of vendors selling Ilocano crafts and food items.

Not in the mood for abel cloth or chichacorn?  La Herencia is a wonderful place to try Ilocano cuisine and it's right across Paoay Church.  Step into this cheerful cafe  for some of their unique takes on traditional Ilocano favourites.

There is the surprisingly good pinakbet pizza -- made even better with a drizzle of genuine Ilocano bagoong.  Ampalaya, okra, sitaw, cheese and bagoong?  Trust me -- the combination is a winner!

I order the bagnet pizza which is also good but then again, fried pork works well with anything.

This is a bowl of the local noodle dish called miki.  Made of fat egg noodles in a chicken based broth it has anything that the cook can get his hands on -- hard boiled eggs, vegetables, bits of crackling from the bagnet, chunks of pork ... it's hot, savoury and delicious!

You'd think that after two pizzas and a bowl of miki, I would be burping my way out of Paoay.
But wait ... right outside La Herencia was a vendor cooking and selling my favourite Ilocano street food ... empanada.  Fate called and I couldn't resist.
Fresh from the frying pan and into my greedy paws.  I ordered it sans longganisa, just the green papaya and munggo filling to assuage my much abused vegetarian conscience.  With a liberal dousing of sukang iloko, it was the best snack of the afternoon.

The bright mid afternoon sun had dipped behind the church and so had the temperature.  There was a fresh chill in the air that you wouldn't get in smoggy Manila.  I took a last look at this graceful Baroque beauty and thanked San Agustin for the blessing of a lovely day in Paoay.
Dios ti angnina!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Christmas Day at the Kitano Tenmangu Flea Market

Christmas Day in Kyoto dawned bright and sunny though  still very cold at about 5C.  

Kyoto resident and good friend Meiko san had made a date to meet up with us on Christmas Day.  
I asked her to take us to the flea market at the Kitano Tenmangu shrine, which coincidentally, is held on the 25th day of each month.  
I had read that Tenjin san, as it is called, was one of the major flea markets in the area so of course I had to go and see it.
Marche aux Puces,  Kyoto style!

Perhaps because it was Christmas day, the crowds seemed unusually thick.  We had to literally elbow our way through the crush of people when we got to the entrance of the shrine.

 It was so interesting to see all the different stalls selling all kinds of food, dry goods, second hand clothes, etc.
Meiko san said that this was her first time in this flea market and she found it quite an experience as well. This flea market is one of the two more well known ones in Kyoto -- the other is the flea market held every 21st of the month at the Toji Temple.

This lady was selling chocolate covered bananas that were too irresistible to pass by.

 There was even a stall selling fresh fish.  This man had very fresh looking salmon.

 Tenjin san has many stalls aimed at young children such as this booth with an interesting assortment of both traditional and modern toys.

There are game booths where kids can try their hand at winning prizes.  It was just like one big happy "perya" or country fair.

The ultimate destination is at the end of the flea market grounds.  This large wooden gate marks the entrance to the Kitano Tenmangu shrine.  I think it is one of the most  beautiful gates that I have seen not just in Kyoto but in Japan.

The shrine is one of the more important shrines in Kyoto.  Dedicated to a renowned scholar, Suguwara Michizane,  Kitano Tenmangu has been around since 950 AD and  is associated with Tenjin, the Shinto god for education.
Meiko san said that it is a major destination for students,  as they seek help for success in their studies and exams.

A number of statues of oxen are found in Kitano Tenmangu because Michizane san was born in the year of the ox.  Most of the visitors who come here rub the ox statues as a way to get good luck.

 This particular  statue made of multi coloured stone is said to have healing powers.  Meiko san told me to rub a part of the ox's body corresponding to a part of my body that has pain or illness and that  illness would  be transferred to the ox.

Further inside the shrine grounds is this hall where a long line of people have queued up to ring the bell and pay their respects to the Shinto god.  Meiko san said that Shinto gods were like humans -- not omnipresent and so, were not always in the shrine -- you rang the bell to summon them to come and give their blessing.

As in other temples and shrines, wooden tablets such as these are for writing petitions and wishes on.

Note the plum blossom design on the lantern.  The plum tree was a particular favourite of Michizane san and they are planted all over the grounds.

If it were spring, the hundreds of plum trees in Kitano Tenmangu shrine would be in full bloom and would be such a sight to behold.  But for now, I had to content myself with looking at their leafless twigs and imagining their springtime beauty.

 Soon it is lunchtime and we head out of the shrine and back onto the flea market grounds.  People continue to arrive but the crowd is not as thick as it was.

 The wide array of local food stalls has made me decide to have an impromptu picnic lunch at Kitano Tenmangu.
It would be a different and delicious way to enjoy a Christmas day meal.  Karaage, sold from a vendor and placed in a small paper cup, was bite sized, piping hot, perfectly crusted and to quote the Colonel -- finger licking good!

 One stall was selling okonomiyaki, a traditional Kansai and Osaka dish.  The vendor said his okonomiyaki was "Hiroshima" style and this meant that in addition to the batter, vegetables,  seafood and meat, it also had noodles.

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki was really good.  The noodles made for slightly toasted crust which enhanced the soft creaminess of the batter and the vegetables.  The generous serving of bonito flakes on top was the delightful coup de grace.

I smelled before I saw these rolls grilling on a bamboo mat and couldn't resist asking about them.  The vendor said it was butabara or pork belly.  That's bacon to me!

I bought one and before he handed it to me, he put some cheese on top and melted it with a mini blowtorch.  

Biting into the roll, you get the smoky flavour of the bacon or butabara and the gooey goodness of melted cheese.  Inside is soft slightly sticky Japanese rice.  What a genius combination!

The takoyaki vendor was a popular favourite.   Like okonomiyaki, takoyaki is an Osaka and  Kansai "soul food" .   Big, plump, glazed with sauce and topped with a sprinkle of herbs, each ball was a mouthful of bliss.

What's a picnic lunch without beer? Asahi Super Dry added to our Christmas cheer.

This is Meiko san who was so generous with her time and friendship, making sure that we would not feel lonely in Kyoto on Christmas day.   It must have been so tiring to walk all over the flea market, in the biting cold and then have to sit on hard wooden benches for a very casual outdoor picnic lunch. 

Christmas in Kyoto was definitely a different experience -- yet one to treasure and remember in the years to come.   Merii kurisumasu mina san!

Note : thanks to my son Gani and husband Jay for some of the photos used in this post.