Food captivated me the moment I entered my grandfather’s nipa hut when I was barely four years old. My young mind vividly recalls the sight of corn, tied in a bunch and drying near the “dapwan” (hearth), meat that was darkened by the smoke, and the sound of chickens clucking somewhere in the corner. There was a sharp, distinct smell permeating the cramped indoor which I could not register then. I only came to find out, months later, that it was the aroma of “etag”, pork that was cured the Sagada way.
I consider myself lucky growing up with grandparents who enriched me with traditional ways. I was a daring kid who climbed up mulberry and nisperos trees with the neighborhood boys, the one who proudly came home in the evenings with scraped knees and insect bites. What had always been a treat though was being called off the dusty Dao-angan road by Lolo Bacagan an evening every week so I could go wolf down the “batikuleng/batik-o” (gizzard) while Lola had the “eges” (intestines) after Lolo finishes his prayers and “atang” (offering) to the “anitos” (spirits). I had older siblings but Lolo always set aside the “batik-o” for me. That made me feel really special.
“Pinikpikan” was the highlight of my weekends. Lolo would butcher his choicest chicken, slice generous slabs of his “etag”, scoop a ladle or two of his prized “tapey” (fermented rice) from an aged “gusi” (ornate jar) and produce the most delectable dish from the “dapwan”. My siblings and I would huddle with our grandparents as we heartily grabbed heaps of rice from a common serving plate we call a “bituto”. We each had a “sukong or apagan” (bowl made from coconut shell) that we can fill and refill to our hearts’ and stomachs’ content.
The delights I experienced from this native delicacy propelled my fascination with food and flavours. Unfortunately, it was a small town where folks send their kids to the city to become nurses and engineers. Pursuing a career in the culinary arena was rather unexplored in my time. That or it was a repressed passion for me that I was just too scared to venture on. Until now.
I realize now that my childhood was an introduction to a romance with food that was only rekindled when I reached my thirties. It’s extremely terrifying to be thinking about doing a leap between careers at this stage in my life but I know that passing up the opportunity would not only make me unhappy but will guarantee that I’ll forever be haunted by these native edibles that I can never rediscover, explore and innovate if I don’t equip myself with the appropriate and ample knowledge and training to guide me on.
We have rich local flavors that can easily be enhanced with the freshest produce from our backyard gardens. In a world where food movement is rapidly evolving to suit different lifestyles and preferences, and the ways to enjoy an ingredient is countless, I am inspired with this little dream to learn about our flavorful roots, and share. Food is meant to make us happy. Food is meant to be shared.
I’m embarking on this long overdue journey of food discovery and appreciation. They say the best way to begin is to go back where it all started. That means revisiting what made the “pinikpikan” explode with flavors. What makes it a staple in Igorot dinner tables since time immemorial? What makes it distinct? How can I describe that wonderful aftertaste? What spikes the flavor? Is it the “etag”, was it the way the chicken was butchered? I’ve eaten the dish probably a thousand times but I’m realizing just now how naive, if not clueless, I am. Maybe I’ll start with the “etag”. And that is a story for another post.