The Philippines is an archipelago of 7000+ islands; fishing villages are a dime a dozen. And if you're going to hit the beach, you're probably going to have some seafood, in some form or fashion. But Pinoys also love the pig. We have many a dish dedicated to cooking pork in stews, grilled (or charred), or stuffed into casings. Throughout my last couple of trips, we ate many a variation on seafood and pork. And bringing a friend back to his roots through the food was a pleasant nostalgic trip for both our stomachs.
Down south by Dumaguete, we ate well from the bounty of the sea. One of our first mornings there, we saw the neighborhood fishing boat returning from it's foray down by the coast of Mindanao. We trailed the village kids to his dock, and watched as people got their allotment of fish from the catch. Our host's wife also bought a lovely red snapper that she grilled for dinner that night; and a few nights later turned some of the smaller fish (whose name I can't find in my notes) into a sweet and sour/escabeche dish. The first grilled fish was sweet, tender, a perfect tropical meal with rice and a salad of tomatoes, onions and the bite of chilli peppers. We also had a tinola/clear broth of fish with tomatoes and ginger and long green peppers. No need for silverware and porcelain plates: we had the expanse of sea, and clean air to rouse our appetites. We ate with gusto.
After a busy day of diving out at Apo, we were hosted for lunch at a dive resort. The meal was simple: noodles, fried potatoes, grilled fish, fried chicken, and sauteed mixed greens. The setting was divine, a mere couple of yards away from clear blue water and shaded by the grass huts.
Friend and fellow blogger, Gypsysoul, wrote about the wonder of the Wednesday market near Dumaguete called Malatapay. Our first lunch in Dumaguete was a spread by the pier there: 2 kilos of lechon, grilled tanguigue, and a fish tinola. The lechon skin was still hot, crispy, and needed no liver sauce for flavor. The meat was succulent and juicy. Pleasure with every bite and crackle.
While we were between trips, my travel companion, who had not been back in Manila for decades, had a longing for chicharon ("lihi" to be exact, that craving like a pregnant woman aching for pickles and ice cream). A good friend provided two packs of amazing chicharon from Bulacan, large stripes of skin and backfat, perfectly salted and flavored. I would say it beats Lapid's for intense chicharon-ness, although Lapid's is the perfect antidote in the city. We savored pieces of it throughout the week.
Finally, we entered bagnet territory! Ilocos has a quite few things to be proud of, bagnet has to be one of the top 5. It was described to us a the Ilocano version of lechon kawali. The pork with good quantities of skin is cooked twice to make it easy to transport (parboil and then a quick deep fry), and then deep fried for the final serving. I love it with a simple tomato/onion/bagoong salad, or alongside talbos ng kamote salads, or as served to us at Sitio Remedios in nearly everything!! Our welcome merienda at Sitio was a tureen of miki (flat egg noodles in a chicken broth heavily orange with atchuete) studded with melting bagnet. At first glance we thought it was a pasta with red sauce, but realized it was the amalgamation of the dark orange broth and the bagnet. We devoured it under a shady tree overlooking the South China Sea.
We also had simple ilokano fare throughout our sojourn in Vigan and Currimao. Red rice, salads, pinakbet (I usually push the ampalaya aside when I eat pinakbet, but they used the baby gourds, a less bitter option. Or maybe it was the addition of bagnet that helped!), longganisa, daing, seaweed salads, kilawin na pusit, adobong pusit, and fried fish (sapa sapa?). The mangoes were sweet beyond belief. What made me giddy with nostalgia was having sticky, starchy white corn in Abra. I recalled the special days when my nanny would return from homeleave in Ilocos and she'd boil a batch of the small ears of corn that would peel back to reveal those starchy kernels. A lick of salt was all I'd want with it, and enough time to savor and chew.
A recent discussion on a food blog asked what makes for a great meal: the food, the company, the ambience, the service or the total package. While we didn't have too many meals out in the province that had the total package, sometimes it was simply a flavor that brought back good memories (very Proustian), or being able to eat in front a vista like the wide ocean with the gentle breeze on our face. In 2007 I can memorably place Dumaguete and Ilocos under places I've had great meals.