It’s been said that for one to truly know a destination, one must savor its food. Such is the case when it comes to Vigan.
Situated right at the heart of the Ilocos region, the capital city of Ilocos Sur is home to diverse cultural and culinary traditions passed down across generations descended from pre-colonial Chinese trading families and Spanish aristocrats, as well as a mutual admiration of innate Ilocano talent from throughout the province. Much of what we see in Vigan today, including its cobblestone streets and heritage houses, as well as its dishes, are a testament to the pride and sense of duty the Bigueños have when it comes to keeping such legacy alive.
But getting to know Vigan through its food also entails a bit of reading and sightseeing—through the pages and shoes of history, that is. As chronicled on the 64-meter mural that hangs in the Vigan Convention Center, the city was once an island separated from the remainder of the Ilocos region by the Mestizo River, an important trading channel for many Chinese merchants who conducted business with the indigenous tribes of the Cordillera. Along the banks of this river grew the biga’a plant, a type of root crop, from which the Spanish captain Juan de Salcedo took the city’s name.
For his services to the crown, Salcedo was awarded the trusteeship of the entire “Ylocos” region, and renamed Vigan, the capital of his encomienda (trusteeship), as Villa Fernandina or Town of Ferdinand in honor of Prince Ferdinand, the firstborn of King Philip II of Spain. Soon, a mixture of Chinese businessmen and Spanish nobles settled in the village, and when the seat of the now Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia was moved to the Villa from Lal-lo, Cagayan in 1758, the town was elevated into a city, making it the Ciudad Fernandina de Vigan.
The city’s famed Heritage Village, including Calle Crisologo and many of its heritage houses, was built during the rise of Vigan as a significant center of commerce in northern Philippines, and many of Ilocandia’s representative dishes were cooked on a daily basis in the kitchens of its prominent homes. The same homes also saw a Vigan embroiled in rebellions and wars, putting its walls and roofs in danger of crumbling and destruction. Had it not been for the intervention of its guardian citizens, and even a few concerned invaders, the city would have been one of ruins, like many of the country’s once-flourishing old towns.
On December 2, 1999, the city was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List of Sites and Monuments as the best preserved example of Spanish colonial towns in Asia, while featuring “a unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning.” For the same reason, Vigan was recently recognized as one of the New7Wonders Cities by the New7Wonders Foundation, following the success of the Puerto Princesa Underground River, after it and six other cities gathered millions of votes from around the globe. During the announcement of winners, Mayor Eva Marie Medina congratulated her fellow Bigueños, saying that the recognition “is a tribute to a people who has committed to achieve development and make wonderful things in their lives and in their community, even radiating beyond boundaries.”
Today, as it has been for hundreds of years, Vigan remains a center of commerce and tourism in the Ilocos region. Various products from around the province are dropped off to be sold in the city’s markets, restaurants, and souvenir shops. From the sugarcane products of Sta. Maria such as vinegar, muscovado and balicucha sugars, to Candon’s calamay (flat, sticky rice cake cooked in molasses), Vigan’s streets have never been more filled with delicacies from around Ilocos Sur. But for a city that has seen new things in the backdrop of the old, Bigueño cuisine is always the way to go.
In terms of land area and population, Vigan cannot be classified as a city by definition of Philippine law. But with the support of archived documents from the Spanish regime, the local government was able to defend its status by virtue of a historical elevation – that it was raised into a city when the diocesan seat was transferred in the 1700s. Because of this, the Church holds a special place in the hearts of all Bigueños. And it is even believed that as long as its cathedral stands, Vigan will remain a city.
Like most Hispanic towns, Vigan’s important sacred and legal structures surround a central plaza, in this case, the Plaza Salcedo, which was named after the city’s founder. The existing baroque-styled cathedral of Vigan, or the Conversion of St. Paul Cathedral, erected in 1790 and the burial place of Ilocano poet Leona Florentino and other prominent residents, stands on one end of this plaza. A unique feature of the city, however, is the existence of another plaza, the Plaza Burgos (after hero Father Jose P. Burgos), where the Cathedral’s Bell Tower is located. The Plaza Salcedo, also the execution site of heroine Gabriela Silang, now features nightly shows of the Vigan Dancing Musical Fountain, while the Plaza Burgos is a favorite playground and delicacy food court.
While not a part of Vigan, many tourists also drop by the Saint Augustine Church in the town of Bantay, which is home to the miraculous Apo Caridad or Our Lady of Charity, and the 16th century Bantay Bell Tower. According to parish priest Fr. Jack Cabatu, locals and tourists share a common devotion in the church, which he has fitted with petition books, candles, and incense to aid everyone in their prayers. Outside the shrine, like in Vigan, local delicacies are sold, which tourists share with the flock of pigeons that gather before the church’s doors.
Many of Vigan’s famous delicacies are sold on plazas and streets as quick tummy-filling snacks for Bigueños on the go.
The Vigan empanada is a tightpacked turnover of local sausage, grated papaya or bean sprouts, and egg, wrapped in a flattened rice-flour dough, and deep-fried until golden and crispy. Ilocos Norte sells a similar recipe, except that the pastry is dyed orange (due to annatto seeds), whereas Vigan, Ilocos Sur’s version preserves the natural brown color of the rice-flour dough. To eat the Vigan empanada, one must sprinkle with or soak it in local spiced cane vinegar (or sukang Iloco, which tastes like wine), and take a bite while it’s still warm.
Another street staple is the humble okoy, a pancake or omelette made of shrimp, onions, tomatoes and spices fried with a batter to hold everything together. While many locals enjoy it on its own as a snack, it is also quite enjoyable as a viand served with rice. Like the empanada, the okoy must also be
served with vinegar and eaten while it’s hot in order to savor its crispy texture. If left to get cold, it will lose its crispiness and will have to be reheated again to regain its crunch.
Along with the empanada and the okoy, locals also favor the sinanglao for their quick fixes, especially in the cold months. Beef innards such as livers, intestines, and lungs are cooked in a sour broth typically made using tamarind or kamias (bilimbi) juices. The resulting warm soup has a distinct sour tang with a hint of bitterness that is derived from all the innards cooked in the broth. In Vigan, everyone – from carriage-drivers to government employees – enjoys a bowlful of sinanglao before or after work hours.
Try Vigan’s empanada, okoy, and sinanglao in the many food stalls of the Vigan Empanadaan, located in a dedicated corner of Plaza Burgos, right beside the Vigan Cathedral.
The best way to go around when in Vigan is on a horse-drawn carriage known as a kalesa, which as depicted in various souvenir items has been the unofficial symbol of the city. Each tour starts along the iconic Calle Crisologo, a cobblestone street that passes through the center of town. In order to preserve the stones’ integrity, cars and other motorized vehicles are not allowed to pass through the street, which during peak season is filled with tourists in kalesas or on foot.
The whole stretch of Crisologo, as well as other parallel streets and avenues, is lined either with original stone structures or faithful reconstructions of old family homes, some of which now house restaurants, hotels, souvenir stores, and craft shops. Some buildings, however, see use as how they were intended during the glory days of Vigan. One such home is the Syquia Mansion along Quirino Boulevard.
Owned by the family of a Chinese merchant who made his fortune trading in Vigan, the Syquia Mansion is now more famous as the Vigan home of President Elpidio Quirino, after his marriage with Doña Alicia Syquia. Looking after the home is Eddie Quirino, the President’s grandson, who said that the family has chosen to keep the property in order to preserve the valuable memorabilia the residence has collected during the stay of the family as well as the president. Every now and then, descendants of the Syquias still visit their Vigan legacy to stay for a few nights in the same rooms their ancestors slept in.
Other places of interest available in sweeping tours of the city are the Father Burgos Museum (birthplace of the heropriest), the Provincial Jail (birthplace of President Quirino), the Crisologo Museum, the Quema House, and the Museo San Pablo (a religious heritage museum).
Among Vigan’s families, valuable recipes have been passed down from generation to generation, especially on how to make some of the Ilocos region’s most prized dishes.
The sinful bagnet, a cut of pork with rich layers of meat and fat, is cooked very early in the morning, as it involves a tedious process of boiling, drying and frying. After the day-long process, the cut of pork will shrink into an oily and crispy slab of meat that is sold to locals and tourists by the kilo. Before plating, a kilo of bagnet is sliced into bite-sized chunks, and served with a dip known as KBL, as it is made with kamatis (tomatoes), bagoong (shrimp paste), and lasona (Ilocano for shallot).
The Vigan longganisa or sausage, meanwhile, has local cooks experimenting on a regular basis, trying to create a balance between its sour, salty, and pungent flavors. Ground parts of pork are spiced and marinated with secret blends of spices like salt, pepper, and garlic, and stuffed into intestines to make a long string of small sausages. Sold by the dozen in the North, each longganisa is cut and fried, and is served with a dip of local vinegar, typically during breakfast.
For something closer to a celebration pie, try the royal bibingka, a proudly Vigan-made delicacy sold by the box throughout Ilocos Sur. While many Filipinos know the bibingka as a spongy rice cake topped with salted egg and sold during the Christmas season, Vigan’s royal bibingka is a small sticky rice cake made with rice flour, eggs, sugar, and coconut milk, topped with cheese, and baked to a delectable chewy perfection. When stored properly, the confection enjoys a good shelf life… but why wait when you can finish a few pieces in one seating?
Take some bagnet and longganisa home from the Vigan Public Market, and a tray of royal bibingka from Tongson’s along Calle Crisologo, or Marsha’s in Bantay.
While downtown Vigan is essentially commercial as well as residential, nature still occupies a special spot in the life of Bigueños. A popular tourist site for an encounter with both animals and the environment is the Baluarte of Salindeg, which features a mini zoo, a butterfly garden, pony rides and encounter shows with such animals as ostriches and tigers.
Meanwhile, a short drive from the city proper is the Mira Hills Filipino-Spanish Friendship Park, a frontier filled with trees and shrubbery, which gives the best view of the city and its surroundings. A favorite picnic and swimming destination for families, it is also home to Buridek: the Vigan Children’s Museum, an educational learning facility and gallery designed to appeal to children. It features miniature reconstructions of Vigan’s heritage houses, cooking demonstrations of staple Ilocano dishes, as well as an extensive doll museum showcasing the clothes and costumes worn by Ilocanos throughout the centuries. Visitors can also play with the interactive displays, watch informational videos about Vigan, and have their pictures taken wearing traditional Ilocano clothing.
Another escape from the city is Hidden Garden by Francis and Rafaela “Glo” Flores. What started out as a small gardening and landscaping project has grown into a massive green complex comprising greenhouses, potteries and a restaurant. According to Mrs. Flores, locals visit the gardens for a deeper contact with the fresh air and the calming greenery, while foreigners and tourists include it in their itineraries in order to fully experience rural life, which they may not have seen in their respective towns or countries. She said that some visitors also make it a point to purchase plants grown in Hidden Garden’s farms, as well as pots to put them in. In the future, they also plan to build rooms in order to offer a complete countryside package.
The Ilocos region is famous for putting all kinds of ingredients to use in the kitchen, especially in the case of vegetables, thereby concocting some of the most well-loved dishes enjoyed by Filipinos throughout the world.
To make pinakbet, an assortment of vegetables including squash, okra, and bitter melon are boiled until all have shriveled, and cooked with bagoong na isda (fermented salted anchovies), tomatoes, and ginger. When Bigueños enjoy this dish, they eat it topped with a few slices of bagnet to add a little sin to the healthy course. The salty-bitter charm of the pinakbet has passed into renown around the country, with each region adding its own identity to the originally Ilocano dish.
Dinengdeng, on the other hand, while similar in ingredients to pinakbet, is mainly a soup dish and is typically topped with grilled fish instead of meat. And compared to pinakbet, dinengdeng contains fewer vegetables and contains more soup base made of fermented fish or shrimp paste. Both the pinakbet and the dinengdeng are staple fare on the Vigan table and are always served with rice.
Of all the Ilocano vegetable dishes, nothing elicits more laughs than the poqui-poqui, a dish of mashed grilled eggplant sautéed with onions, tomatoes, eggs and seasoning. Despite its deceiving name, the poqui-poqui has been embraced by many tourists due to its similarity to a scrambled omelette, and has converted curious or hesitant picky eaters to embrace Ilocano cuisine. This vegetable dish goes well with newly fried chunks of bagnet or a plateful of genuine Vigan longganisa, for a real Bigueño feast.
For a taste of authentic pinakbet, dinengdeng, and poqui-poqui, enter the enchanting premises of Hidden Garden’s Lilong & Lilang Restaurant, which also serves a version of poqui-poqui, one that’s rolled into balls with longganisa, breaded, and deep-fried.
In Vigan, tourists do not just have a chance to purchase souvenirs – they also have the opportunity to see the process, and even take part in their creation. Each barangay also has its own product to showcase, with many having reached the shores of Europe and the United States. Barangay Camangaan, for example, is famous for the weaving of abel Iloco (intricately-designed textile woven manually using a loom), while Barangay San Jose is the main producer of kankanen (native delicacies) like bibingka (sticky rice cake), dudol (toffee), patupat (glutinous rice cooked in molasses and wrapped in a leaf pouch), and puto (rice sponge cake).
Another prized article made by the hands of Bigueños is the burnay or earthenware jar, in which various food items and seasonings like vinegar and wine are stored by Ilocanos. It is said that the Chinese have been making these jars in Vigan even before the Spaniards came, that is why it is no surprise that the art of making burnay is continued to this day by Fidel Antiporda Go, a master who learned the craft from his Chinese ancestors. Every day, he conducts demonstrations in his pagburnayan for visitors, who he later encourages to sit on the wheel and mold their own jars. He is also instrumental in securing the art of burnay-making in the curriculum taught to Vigan’s students.
Away from all the tourist activity, however, is 95-year-old Agatona Cachero, who has been making damili or red clay pottery since she was a young girl. The simple but labor-intensive approach in which she makes her products has rendered a hunch on her back, but she remains the jolly story-telling Bigueña the city has known her as. The damili she makes like pots, bricks, and tiles are used for various decorative purposes in different places in the city, the secret of which she has passed on to her children.
Some of Vigan’s dishes were also originally created in other countries like Spain and Mexico, to which the Bigueños added their own touch, giving rise to an early form of fusion cooking.
With origins from Mexico, the pipian is still cooked almost exclusively in Vigan, because of an ingredient that grows on its lands – the pasotes (epazote), a leaf that gives the soup its unique earthy taste. Making pipian requires the cooking of chicken in ginger, kamias (bilimbi), annatto oil, and pasotes, and the thickening of the soup with ground rice. Bigueños enjoy this stew not just for lunch or dinner, but for snacks as well.
Vigan’s representative meat dishes have also been reinvented to appeal to a younger and more foreign palate. In the local government’s annual competitions, many new dishes were conceived using the humble longganisa and bagnet. To turn local longganisa into burger, remove the seasoned meat from the skin, and turn them into patties for grilling or frying. Serve it stacked in a bun with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and your choice of sauce or dressing. Bagnet, on the other hand, is a favored filling for quesadilla – chop the bagnet into small manageable pieces, and press between a piece of tortilla with cheese, as well as its conventional partner ingredients – tomatoes, shrimp paste, and onions. It can also be diced, mixed with onions, an egg, and pork crackling, and served on a sizzling platter to mirror the Kapampangan sisig.
Bringing together the old and the new is the appeal of Kusina Felicitas on the corner of Bonifacio Street and Quezon Boulevard. Aside from the pipian, longganisa burger, bagnet quesadilla, and bagnet sisig, try its seafood offerings like gamet (black seaweed) soup, and various treatments to ipon, a local small fish species that is only available from the months of October to February.
Jacinto cor. Florentino Sts., Vigan City, Ilocos Sur
Opened as a central food hub for both locals and tourists, the Vigan Empanadaan features stalls selling empanada and other local delicacies.
Hidden Garden Lilong & Lilang Restaurant
Brgy. Bulala, Vigan City, Ilocos Sur
Opened to the public in 1991 by entrepreneurs Francis & Rafaela Flores, the award-winning Lilong & Lilang Restaurant is a dining establishment also known for its workshops and demonstrations on how to make delicacies like empanada and longganisa.
Crisologo St., Vigan City, Ilocos Sur
Cafe Leona (which serves Ilocano cuisine with a mix of Asian and Western dishes) is housed in the preserved ancestral home of its namesake, Ilocano poet Leona Florentino.
No. 1 Bonifacio St. cor. Quirino Blvd., Vigan City, Ilocos Sur
Kusina Felicitas is the signature restaurant of Grandpa’s Inn’s. It features a line of authentic Ilocano & Filipino as well as Asian selections.
Tongson’s Royal Bibingka
Crisologo St., Vigan City, Ilocos Sur
An institution since 1967, Tongson’s is famous for originally bringing the royal bibingka to the consciousness of visitors from outside Vigan.