Somewhere along Calle Crisologo, amidst a backdrop of beautifully preserved antique Antillean houses, the clip-clop of horse-drawn kalesas on the cobblestone pavement, and the lively bustle of tourists scuttling about, I found myself in a souvenir shop mulling over a neat stack of tinubong, a sweet, sticky, distinctively Ilocano delicacy made primarily of glutinous rice, sugar, margarine, cheese and coconut milk, all stuffed into a bamboo inter-node or tubong.
The attending shop lady came up to me and offered me a free taste, to which I more than happily obliged. She took one of the bamboo tubes and, with a quick whack of one end of the bamboo against the floor, split the entire length of the tube open, revealing a coarse white paste into which I dug my fingers to have a taste of its sweet, starchy texture. It was an interesting find, as were many of the other delicacies – like turones de mani, tupig and balicucha – that were on display in the store. There was a lot to explore in the foodscape of Vigan, as much as there were to explore in the town’s history and culture. Steeped in old world elegance, Vigan offers charming glimpses into the country’s Spanish colonial past and foretastes of the cultural landscape of the Ilocos region.
Upholding a tasteful tradition
Known as Villa Fernandina during the Spanish period, the provincial capital of Ilocos Sur is a time capsule where aspects of olden ways maintain their appeal and relevance in modern times.
Our stay at Hotel Luna was already in itself an elegant presentation of modernity paying tribute to culture, as the hotel, located at the heart of Vigan’s Heritage Village, exuded gracious old world charm and hospitality, coupled with modern-day service. And considered to be the first and only museum hotel in the Philippines, Hotel Luna also showcases the finest in Philippine art, boasting of rare vintage artworks and dynamic modern pieces from master painters, contemporary artists, and even important national artists such as Juan Luna. Even the menu selection served in its restaurant harps on traditional Ilocano cuisine, composed of regional dishes such as dinengdeng (soup-based vegetable dish cooked with fish and bagoong), sapsapuriket (chicken stewed in blood), pipian (chicken parts stewed with nuts and ground rice), pokpoklo (finger algae), bagnet (deep fried crispy pork belly), dinakdakan (grilled pork parts tossed in a calamansi dressing with onions and chili) and poqui-poqui (roasted eggplant cooked with eggs and tomatoes), all imbued with modern and innovative twists.
Touring around town, we visited some local craft shops, particularly the burnayan, where they make local pottery, and the abel weaving looms, where they produce traditional Ilocano woven textiles.
At the burnayan, Fidel Go, the master potter who inherited the shop from his father and his grandfather, demonstrated his craft at the potter’s wheel, as he deftly shaped with his hands a finely curved jar from an amorphous lump of clay. He explained that the earthen jars, or burnay, of Vigan is distinctive in that the jars are cooked at much higher temperatures, thus making the finished product harder and less breakable. To prove his point, he got one of his finished products, a miniature vase, and just casually slammed it on his bench.
“See! No damage,” he said as he handed over to me the still intact vase.
At Rowilda’s Loom Weaving, business owner Dominic Panela recounted how, despite some difficulties and an initial bankruptcy, he was able to establish his abel weaving enterprise and thus uplift and promote the Ilocano weaving tradition. From the yards of woven fabric that they create from the looms, Rowilda’s Loom Weaving churns out various finished products such as table runners, dress materials, pillow cases, blankets and hand towels.
Delving into the history of Vigan, we likewise visited the Syquia Mansion Museum, where memorabilia of the Philippine’s sixth president, Elpidio Quirino, and of his wife were kept. There, we beheld an intimate look into the life of one of the country’s historic figures and caught glimpses of how daily aristocratic life played out during colonial times.
Where things sound (and are) delicious
It’s hard for me to distinguish any common thread that unites the varied tapestry of Ilocano dishes, save perhaps the sometimes curious names of some food items, which may elicit some snickers and giggles from the unacquainted: names like poqui-poqui, pokpokla and kabatiti, which to the ears of Tagalog speakers would sound off a rather irreverent ring. But the diversity of Ilocano dishes that I have savored during our trip in Vigan only showed me just how rich the Ilocano culinary culture really is.
I asked Hotel Luna’s head chef, Raymund Quitilen, if Ilocano cuisine distinguished social classes, and he responded that there was no such thing. Any Ilocano delicacy was equally appreciated and eaten by everyone, regardless of social status.
Around Plaza Salcedo and the church grounds of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, street food stalls hawking freshly fried Ilocos empanada and ukoy, were equally filled with dining patrons as much as the nearby restaurants or the more contemporary fast food stores at the nearby Plaza Maestro commercial mall. At Irene’s Vigan Empanada, the popular crusty deep-fried meat pie typically made of rice dough wrapping, filled with grated green papaya, longganisa and egg is bandied as a gastronomic must-try, given that the Irene’s Vigan Empada brand has introduced novel variations to the traditional empanada recipe, such us bangus (milkfish) empanada.
Perhaps what distinguishes any food establishment in Vigan from the rest of its competition is either how it abides by or how it innovates upon time-tested traditional recipes. Yet whichever direction any culinary practitioner takes, the result is always touted as authentic. It is this adherence to the ideal of providing guests and patrons their own definitions of what authentic Ilocano cuisine is that drives the successes of popular go-to food destinations in Vigan. These include the Hidden Garden restaurant, owned by the husband and wife team of Francis and Glo Flores, and Kusina Felicitas at Grandpa’s Inn, with its signature dishes such as healthy pinakbet (pork and mixed vegetables cooked with shrimp paste). Crispy bagnet dipped in KBL (which stands for kamatis (tomato), bagoong (fermented fish paste) and lasona (shalllots)), and sinanglao (beef offal soup flavored with kamias and bile).
Pride for tradition, I noticed, is also a main ingredient in the flourishing of Vigan’s culinary scene. At the home of Delma Quimson, where the popular Delma’s Vigan Longganisa brand is based, helpers stuff sausage skins with longganisa filling of ground pork mixed with plenty of garlic and spices.
“The distinguishing ingredient of Vigan longganisa is really the garlic… lots of it,” Delma explained. She recounted how the business started off from the endeavors of her mother who was able to send her children through college by means of selling homemade longganisa. Ever since Delma inherited the trade, she has made it grow into a thriving and profitable business.
What was perhaps the most impressive food item that I encountered during our visit to Vigan was the canutillo, a unique Spanish pastry made of fried dough rolled into a small tube – hence the name, which means “little tube” in Spanish – and filled with a sweet filling made out of kundol (winter gourd). Mel Andino and Edith Villegas-Iniba described how long and arduous the process of making this delicacy was and how its tradition was practiced only in Vigan and is now being kept alive only through their dedication of keeping it so.
“Canutillo has been there for the longest time, since the 1800s or even earlier,” Mel Andino pointed out, emphasizing just how distinctive this pastry tradition is.
A flavorful forecast
Vigan has tremendously grown to be a popular tourism destination in the Philippines. Its enlistment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and as a “New 7 Wonders Cities in 2015” became contributing factors in its progress and development.
There is a certain spirit about the town, a certain verve that revel in the old and the traditional. It is the fervor of keeping alive its heritage that struck me most about Vigan. And I believe it is that same fervor which will keep Vigan thriving and prosperous.