Pinakbet is one of those rare, indigenous Philippine dishes. It is not Spanish or Chinese inspired, but a true Filipino creation, specifically from the Ilocos Region in northwest Luzon.
It is also an exceptional dish in that it has become acceptable, even sought after, through the whole length of the Philippine archipelago. Remarkably, it’s not meat heavy unlike some other Filipino food favorites. Its main ingredients are mostly native vegetables, the kind that you can easily grow in your backyard.
Many local restaurants now offer pinakbet in their vegetables menu, but very few can pull off a decent version. Either the vegetables are limp and unrecognizable, or the entire dish lacks the native savoriness that you expect in a pinakbet.
What I am looking for are firm vegetables steeped in the flavors of both the sea and the earth. It sounds simple enough, but judging from the many poor versions I have tasted (including my own failed attempts), it’s a tricky endeavor.
The recipes found in books or online are not much help. Somehow, there’s always a secret step or an ingredient that’s been left out—whether on purpose, or just the local paucity in fastidiousness.
Pinakbet traces its roots to the Ilocos Region whose people have the reputation of being frugal, hardy, resilient, and adaptable. These are characteristic of people with a strong association with nature, for the region’s economy is still mostly based on agriculture and fisheries.
The region occupies the northwestern side of Luzon; a jagged part that looks as if a big chunk had been bitten off. It bravely faces South China Sea to the west, and its tip looks out to the Luzon Strait. Apart from Ilocos Norte, the other provinces included in the region are Ilocos Sur, La Union, and Pangasinan.
Its agro-marine industries produce, among others, rice, garlic, sugarcane, mangoes, tobacco, bangus, tilapia, and bagoong. This umami mother lode, bagoong, is traditionally fermented in unglazed earthenware jars that the Ilocanos call burnay.
Ah, bagoong! Most Filipinos have a self-indulgent fondness for this condiment. Bagoong is a paste or mostly liquid substance, made from salted and fermented fish or shrimps. It is an ingredient in many local dishes, a counterpoint to sour mangoes, and a substantial meal in itself if taken with steamed rice.
Harold McGee, in his book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, explains the appeal of fermented food. They provide, he says, “a concentrated source of appetite-stimulating flavors—above all the savory monosodium glutamate and other amino acids—for a diet dominated by bland rice.”
McGee notes that food fermentation is a time-honored tradition in the whole of East Asia. His encyclopedic book even has a chart comparing the different fermented fish products in East Asia, including our own bagoong, patis, and burong isda (sour-fermented rice and fish).
But the culinary history of fermented fish goes way, way back, to the ancient Greeks and Romans who called them garum or liquamen.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat vividly describes how they are made in her seminal work, A History of Food:
“Garum was a sauce made of the intestines of mackerel or anchovies, macerated in salt and then left out in the sun until the mixture had completely decomposed, or rather had digested itself by the action of the fish’s own intestinal microbes . . .
“(A) very fine strainer was plunged into the vessel containing the mixture to collect the syrupy, strongly flavored liquid. The garum was ladled out and left to mature. The residue or alec . . . was not thrown away. Poor people used it to season and enrich their cereal porridges.”
Garum or liquamen has long ceased to be part of the Western culinary scene. But it is still very much in use in Asia, albeit in a different form, with Asians carrying on with the idea that all harvest from the sea should be made full use of, and preserved and enjoyed in a variety of ways.
By some serendipity, I was trawling through the supermarket stalls when I chanced upon a bottled bagoong that said “Pangasinan Pure Boneless Bagoong” by Merly’s Bagoong. Its label, which even had a sketch of a burnay jar, said it was made in Lingayen, capital of Pangasinan.
Perhaps this was the secret ingredient that I’ve been looking for, an authentic fish bagoong from the Ilocos region, the birthplace of pinakbet.
“Merly’s Bagoong” is a fish sauce derived from scad, otherwise known as galunggong. The ingredient list also mentioned salt and natural food coloring. The liquid sauce is grayish, as opposed to the dark red or pink of bagoong alamang, which is made from tiny shrimps.
Since I was cooking for only two people, I decided to just buy the cut-up vegetable pack, which contained squash, okra, ampalaya, eggplant, and sitaw. I’ve read that the use of squash in a pinakbet is an innovation by the Tagalogs. In Ilocos apparently, they use mostly green vegetables including sigarilyas (winged bean) and patani (butter or lima beans).
In a nod to Ilocano frugality, I did not buy fresh pork and decided to repurpose the leftover crispy pata from a recent restaurant lunch. There was enough meat for about a cup of cooked pork, with some good fat thrown in.
I did, however, buy one-fourth kilo of shrimps, which I think are essentia l for a good-tasting pinakbet. Peel the shells off the shrimps, and cut off the heads. Slice one small onion and a few tomatoes.
Heat up some oil in a pan, toss in the pork to ease off the fat and then set aside. Next cook the shrimp heads. This is my easier alternative to the traditional “pounding of the shrimp heads” to get the essence of shrimp. When the heads are done take them out, add a bit more oil to pan.
Sauté the onion for a minute or two. Add two cups of water, the tomatoes, and 3 tablespoons of the Pangasinan fish sauce. Let it simmer for a few minutes before placing the vegetables in a layer starting with the squash, ampalaya, okra, eggplant, and the sitaw.
Top with the peeled shrimps, the cooked pork, and cover the pan. The simmering sauce and steam will cook everything in as little as 5 minutes. (You can return the shrimp heads, but what I do is pan-fry them separately in oil and salt, for a quick, crispy snack.)
After putting in the vegetables, don’t stir. Stirring supposedly will make the ampalaya taste bitter, but it’s also good advice so as not to bruise the vegetables. You want them tender crisp. Shake or toss just once, when they’re almost done.
My final verdict: the use of fish bagoong definitely made a big difference in taste. In fact, I won’t be using alamang anymore for cooking pinakbet—I’ve found my perfect, savory garum and liquamen.