The title is in Ilokano and translates to "Kumain ka na?" (Have you eaten?) "Halika dito, kumain ka muna". (Come over and have a bite.)
The Amigos did not need more than one invitation to eat. We certainly tried to sample as much of the local fare as we could, on this North Luzon Camino.
Our base in Laoag was the B&B Balay da Blas which is also where the very popular and well regarded restaurant Saramsam is based. Both are owned by Sammy Blas who is a passionate advocate of all things Ilokano -- particularly culture and cuisine.
Saramsam is my favourite restaurant in Ilocos Norte, I truly admire Sammy Blas' inventive yet authentic take on traditional Ilokano dishes.
What was on the dinner table? For starters, creamy poqui poqui, which we also enjoyed as a pizza although no photos were taken before the pizza was completely devoured.
This very Ilokano dish of grilled eggplant mixed with soft scrambled egg, shallots (or lasona as they are locally called), garlic and tomatoes sounds obscenely funny and always gets me a shocked
reply -- "Huh? WHAT are we eating???!"
But one spoonful of this very scrumptious dish convinces first timers that poqui poqui is indeed a must try Ilokano staple.
We could never tire of pakbet, particularly the G.I. (genuine Ilokano) version. The real pakbet does not use shrimp bagoong nor does it have kalabasa. Instead, fish bagoong is used and all sorts of local vegetables find their way into the palayok -- like alucon, patani, okra, the small native ampalaya and talong and my favourite, the deadly-looking-but-absolutely-no-heat siling duwag.
Since this was dinner time, I avoided ordering bagnet so that we would not have nightmares brought on by too much fat and cholesterol.
However, I still ordered pork but in the form of insarabasab, which in Ilokano means "cooked over fire". Insarabasab is grilled parts of the pig's head like nguso, pisngi and tenga along with the more "acceptable" pigue and kasim.
What makes insarabasab so deliciously different from plain grilled pork? I think it's the blend of textures from the various parts of the pig plus the garnish / marinade that includes calamansi, sukang iloko, ginger, garlic and lasona (shallots).
Here's a tip -- once you add creamy mayonnaise to insarabasab, it transforms itself into dinakdakan, another well known Ilokano dish.
Nagimas ti sidain! Ang sarap ng ulam (the food was delicious). But now it was time for dessert.
I knew exactly what I wanted the Amigos to try -- kalti.
Sammy Blas lifts up to fine dining levels something that you would normally classify as street food -- minatamis na saging at kamote at bilo-bilo (sweetened bananas and yams and sticky rice balls).
At Saramsam, the waitstaff call this the Ilokano fondue. A sauce of caramelised brown sugar with sticky rice balls bubbles merrily on top of a small candle.
The fried banana and yam slices are meant to be dipped in the sweet sauce. Yummy!
It's deconstructed banana and camote cue!
Thank you Saramsam -- now how do you like our "pabebe" wave?
The next day, there were more local specialties for the Amigos to savour.
While everyone had tried Ilokano empanadas back in Manila, today we would be enjoying them right at the source.
Batac has always been known as having the best empanadas this side of Ilocos Norte.
Years ago, these were sold by vendors who set up small stalls across the church.
Today the empanada makers are all housed in this multi-level building called the Batac Riverside Empanadaan, still across Batac Church. This Empanadaan is concrete proof that Batac is indeed the Empanada Capital of Ilocos.
Arranged like a food court, different empanada makers have their own stalls.
Should we buy from Glory's? Glomy's? Or perhaps Lanie's empanadas would be better?
Our local tour guide Michelle solved the conundrum. She led us all to Glomy's which she said
was her regular suki. Aside from empanadas, Glomy's also makes lumpianada, a marriage of lumpia and empanada where the empanada fillings are encased in lumpia wrappers and deep fried.
But no newfangled fusion food for us -- everyone ordered the special empanada.
The special empanada costs P40 making it very affordable (and filling) merienda fare. The
regular empanada costs only P30 and would be good for school children on a modest allowance.
For big spenders, there is the Double Double Empanada which costs P75 (still cheaper than a Big Mac) and consists of double portions of both longganisa and egg.
There is nothing quite like your first bite into a fresh empanada, hot off the frying pan. Sprinkle
each bite with sukang iloko liberally laced with siling labuyo and your mouth is in for an unforgettable Ilokano treat.
Man does not live by empanada alone. Glomy's as well as the other stalls sell more merienda
and pulutan fare. The next popular favourite would be these succulent Batac longganisas,
deep fried and skewered on short bamboo sticks. A stick costs only P15.
It goes well with empanada and at night, I am sure it goes even better with ice cold beer.
Bring out the San Mig light please!
Did the Amigos like their taste of Batac empanada? Thumbs up! Naimas!
Having finished a special empanada each, you would think we would be ready to stop eating.
But lunchtime found us by the shores of Paoay Lake where we had reservations at the newest "in" place in town -- Vista del Lago, also owned by Sammy Blas.
The view from the terrace of Vista del Lago was breathtaking. Paoay Lake is a protected national
park and the local government seems to be doing a good job in keeping its blue waters pristine,
clean and pollution free. I wish we could sit and dine al fresco and enjoy the marvellous lake view but the Ilokano sun was just too much so I escaped back into the air-conditioned comfort of the main dining room.
A tall glass of freshly brewed tarragon tea with lots and lots of ice cubes restored and revived the Amigos who had been wilting under the unrelenting Ilokano heat.
Since we just had a heavy merienda of empanadas and longganisa, we resolved to eat a
lighter lunch. Thankfully, Vista del Lago's menu offers western and international choices in
addition to some choice Ilokano fare.
We decided to try their Ensalada of Saging and Kamatis -- ripe red tomatoes are paired with slices
of boiled saging na saba (bananas) and topped with cubes of locally made soft cheese.
I had never had saging na saba in a salad before and this creative addition worked quite well.
We also ordered Sammy Blas' version of a seafood fritto misto -- shrimp and squid were lightly floured, quickly fried and topped with garlic and pepper bits. A smooth honey mustard was the perfect dipping sauce. I liked the fact that this dish was garnished with a few pieces of deep fried siling duwag. Served like this, they reminded me so much of their Galician cousins, the pimentos de padron.
I wish Vista del Lago would offer fresh roasted or fried siling duwag sprinkled with sea salt from Pasuquin -- then it would be another original dish, made with purely local ingredients.
We had started out with such good intentions -- but I have to confess, the "light" lunch also
included orders of bagnet and igado -- the Ilokano stew of offal and pork meat. Can you see the guilt
on our faces? Despensarem!
Despite everyone protesting that we had been eating all day, dinnertime found the Amigos in front
of La Preciosa, an institution in Laoag's dining scene. It has been around much longer than Saramsam and offers Ilokano fare cooked the traditional way, as an Ilokano grandmother would have cooked it.
There were still some Ilokano dishes that were waiting to be discovered and La Preciosa was just
the place to try these.
We had lauya (the remains of which you can barely see in the photo above).
Lauya is a simple but very flavourful clear soup of meat bones boiled with garlic, ginger and some vegetables. Light but a real palate pleaser.
I also made everyone try the Ilokano version of dinuguan called dinardaraan.
I guarantee that you and your arteries will love this dish!
Dinardaraan uses pork meat and pork bituka (intestines) that are fried crisp before being mixed with the pig's blood. Think of it as dinuguan using lechon kawali and chicharon bituka -- doesn't that just make your blood pressure rise?
It's decadent, it's divine, it's dinardaraan! Extra rice please!
We also ordered La Preciosa's poqui poqui, which the Amigos preferred over Saramsam's eggier version. And because we started with our Ilokano food tour with pinakbet, our last dinner had to include the same dish, for full and final closure of our foray into the delectable, delicious world of Ilokano food.
NB. This is Mayk Mariano, professional photographer and my Amigo. Because I got caught
up with too much eating and talking, I forgot to take photos of most of the dishes that we ate.
Thank you Mayk for generously allowing me to use your very professional and appetising food
shots. I am sure the reader can easily identify which ones are yours -- they're the ones taken with
an artistic and keen eye. They have certainly improved the quality of my post.
Thanks too to Jay for some of his photos that I also used most specially, this last photo of
Mayk and me.