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.
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.
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.
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.