Etag, And Everything That Comes With It

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Raw pork, “speared” during Begnas.

We used to jokingly say you can never claim to have tried genuine Sagada “etag” (cured pork) if you haven’t had one with those wriggling “foodstuff” that sometimes come with a chunk. I had my fair share way back and fortunately had the stomach to literally stomach it. But of course that’s not a recommendation. Contamination in food is a definite no-no. This just shows though that our local methods were a work in progress way back. I’d like to believe we’ve come far from the crude ways we utilized before and are now more meticulous and mindful with our preservation techniques.

Like the ancient civilizations that experimented and or accidentally discovered methods to extend food perishability, our local forefathers used meat preservation procedures that are still prevalent in today’s local food practices. Curing pork has been a tradition that most possibly dates back to the earliest settlers in our “ili” (village). Salt is generously spread on big slabs of pork, left to dry for several days, smoked then stored–accessed when an occasion calls for it.

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© stock.adobe.com

Salt was a luxurious commodity decades ago. My grandmother recounted traversing mountains with a sack of produce on her back to exchange for a pound or two of salt with our lowland brothers, the Ilocanos. This image never fails to plaster on my mind every time I extravagantly season every dish I make with these priceless crystals.

As an elder of the village, Lolo always got one of the best part as his “watwat” (meat share when a pig is butchered during a festivity). He’d then spend days working on his slab and I could just gape but not allowed to ask too many questions. This was decades ago but I can still see myself tailing him to the back of our “inatep” (nipa house) where the magic happens.

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CTTO; Etag, up for grabs in the market.

A typical Sagada etag would be cured following these procedures. Variations are employed in-between depending on preferences but it generally follows the preservation method that’s done for pork; salting, sun-drying, smoking, storage.

  • Choose a slab of pork that has some fat and skin on it.
  • Apply a generous amount of salt to cover the entire chunk.
  • Sun-dry the meat for three days to a couple of weeks. The longer, the more flavourful.
  • Cold-smoke the meat. Be careful to strategically place the meat where the heat can’t cook it but smoke can reach it. Smoking is done until the desired color and outside texture is achieved. Avoid using resinous wood as this causes bitterness. Sagada folks primarily use alnus (common alder) wood.
  • Etag can be stored in room temperature in air-tight containers or wrapped with paper and stored in dark places to avoid moisture development.

*Some skip the smoking part and simply store the salted pork in earthen jars. Etag cured this way misses the reddish dark coloring that is typical of the common Sagada etag.

Like the mold that forms when cheese is aged, a thin, whitish mold would cover the etag after a few days. Maggots also hatch on the meat. Unfortunately, you can’t protect the salted meat from flies 24/7. This then requires a rigorous amount of washing prior to cooking. And of course boiling the meat in 100 °C or more to kill any bacteria that may still be thriving therein.

For the uninitiated, etag is not the kind of food that is love at first bite. Especially if one has seen those wriggly little “flavours” before they were washed off. Interesting how it was even featured as the top most bizarre Filipino food because of such. But as earlier mentioned, we’ve come a long way from the unrefined methods we’ve employed decades ago.

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Masferre’s Sagada Etag; A pioneer in the vacuum-packaging of the native delicacy.

Today, we see more advanced ways to preserve the etag. Local entrepreneurs are even packaging this native delicacy in vacuum-sealed packets thus ensuring longevity and the prospect of importing it for sale to far places.

It is a celebrated native gourmet that Sagada has repackaged its annual town fiesta to showcase the etag as its major theme. The ingredient is featured as a main element in various dishes, to show that it can be furthered as a dish. Not just as what we’ve grown accustomed to, an enhancer to the “pinikpikan”, but a standout on its own.

The etag’s flavour profile is so distinct that personally I cannot classify it as a ham, bacon, or any cured pork product that has used similar procedures in its preservation. The secret might be with the species of the wood used to smoke it. Maybe the local pig and the local slop it has eaten. Or maybe, those wriggly “foodstuff”? That’s a secret I would not be so keen to uncover for everyone to know.

“Batik-o” Had Me At Hello

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“Pinikpikan” by James Gabriel A. Wandag

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.