On a recent trip to Baguio, I saw with dismay how food courts and fast food chains had taken over the city. Not wanting to waste calories and money on chicken, pizza or a frappucino, I headed off to find a local, independent restaurant -- hopefully one where I could also enjoy local flavours.
Serendipitously, I found one just 200 meters from where we were staying for the weekend.
Cafe Yagam is along Felipe Rd. was just a hop and skip away from Hotel Elizabeth.
The cafe is inside a renovated house. The living room has been converted to a dining area where simple wooden tables are set comfortably apart. Paperbacks are conveniently placed on bookshelves so that you can read while waiting for your order.
Not into reading? How about doing some shopping while you wait? Crafted by local weavers,
these attractive bracelets, neckpieces, belts and coin purses make good souvenirs.
Cafe Yagam bills itself as a coffee shop that serves Cordillera coffee and a few choice specialties.
Of course for those who prefer safe, generic fare (yes, I am being judgemental here), pasta, pizza and a sandwich or two are also on offer.
I love blood sausage --the Ilocano version is called penuneng while the Cordillera version is called pinuneg. Cafe Yagam serves pinuneg with a side of mountain rice, a spicy sour vinegar dip and some chopped fresh greens.
The blood sausage, fried to a crisp and almost bursting out of its casing, came on two metal skewers. Like its Ilocano cousin (sibling?) pinuneg makes use of minced pork mixed with pig's blood.
Unlike penuneng, pinuneg is mixed with rice so you get a texture of crunchy pork bits, soft pig's blood and dense and chewy rice. Mixed with garlic and vinegar, it's delicious and definitely worth trying.
Jay ordered pinikpikan and I half expected the PETA police to suddenly materialise and haul him off in handcuffs.
Pinikpikan is a classic and traditional Cordillera chicken soup that tastes somewhat like the tagalog tinola.
However, if Cafe Yagam cooked it the classic traditional way, it is a very cruel and inhumane way
for a chicken to lose its life ... just for a bowl of soup.
I shall not elaborate. However way this dish was cooked, it was hearty, gingery, piquant and perfect for the chilly Baguio evening.
Since it was my birthday dinner (happy birthday to me!) I wanted to toast myself (since Jay cannot take alcohol) with the native liquor - tapuy.
This is a smooth, sweet wine made from fermented rice and is the local drink in the Cordilleras.
It reminds me of a slightly more robust and sweeter version of sake.
When drinking tapuy, remember that while it is sweet and easy to drink the alcohol content is 15%.
I enjoyed Cafe Yagam's tapuy so much that I brought back two bottles to Manila.
While I normally avoid coffee after dinner as it can keep me tossing and turning all night, I had to finish this genuine Cordillera meal with a cup of their mountain blend.
The friendly and helpful waitstaff at Cafe Yagam talked about how arabica coffee beans are farmed
in the Cordilleras and how difficult it can be for the farmers to get it to market.
They also said there are now initiatives made by NGOs and cooperatives to make the coffee more available and give the farmers better prices for their crops.
One sip of their coffee and I was hooked. I ordered a medium roast/medium strength brew (they brew your cup to your specifications) and found it aromatic with sweetish, earthy notes.
I asked if I could buy a couple of bags but was told that you have to order these a few weeks ahead.
Surprisingly, the coffee was lighter than I thought it would be and did not give me a sleepless night. Although that could have been due to the two glasses of tapuy that I enjoyed.
Coffee goes well with good company and conversation. We lingered at Cafe Yagam long after we had emptied our coffee cups.
When we left, a group of young people had taken over the front yard and someone had started a fire going in the outdoor fireplace.
Sipping tapuy or coffee under the stars, with a fire to ward off Baguio's sweater weather ... what a nice idea! We must try that next time we go back to Cafe Yagam.