Not until you’ve traveled to Vigan do you realize just how remote it is from Manila. This beautiful city, in the northern province of Ilocos Sur, is a good seven-hour drive from the capital. Should you prefer to travel by plane to Laoag, there’s still a two-hour drive ahead of you, possibly at night as the plane lands at around 8 PM. This sense of distance just adds to the romantic aura of Vigan, a picturesque city with charming cobblestone streets, magnificent ancestral homes and a lively people, the Ilokanos.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan has been praised for being one of the best preserved examples of a Spanish colonial town in Asia. The city itself was laid down in the 16th century along lines preferred by the Spanish, in grid fashion, with the plaza and church at the very center. But long before the Spanish arrived, Vigan already existed as a coastal trading post. Chinese merchants used to sail up the Mestizo River with their goods for trade.
To this day, Vigan enjoys a strong Chinese Filipino presence; in fact the most fabulously wealthy family in the city were the Chinese mestizo Syquias, one of whom married Elpidio Quirino, the 6th Philippine president.
A unique cuisine
For all their rich and storied heritage, the Ilokanos live on a cuisine that’s delightfully unpretentious yet unique. Geographically close to mountain and sea, Vigan has been blessed with a plethora of food sources like fish, coffee, garlic and corn. The quality of their vegetables is superb; the Ilokanos like to cook their greens simply, perhaps in a broth slightly flavored with patis (fish sauce), a method used in cooking the well-loved dishes of dinengdeng or inabraw.
Pinakbet is the most beloved of Ilokano dishes, and the traditional way of cooking this is to layer the vegetables in a clay pot, with the veggies that take the longest cooking time at the bottom. Over these are layered tomatoes, ginger and bagnet. The pot is covered so that the heat and steam cooks the vegetables, after which one shakes the pot to mix the ingredients together. No water is added, since the undiluted juices from the vegetables will give strong flavor to the pinakbet. All in all, a no-nonsense, thrifty, tasty dish that is typically Ilokano.
In its isolation, Vigan makes use of herbs and ingredients in the kitchen that Manileños don’t have access to. Epasotes, a green leafy herb originally from Mexico, is a popular ingredient for the classic chicken dish, pipian. A stringy seaweed called popolo is often simply blanched and served as salad, still slightly salty and fresh with the flavors of the sea. The fruit of the malunggay, called burudibud, is a favorite when made into a broth thickened with mashed sweet potatoes and other veggies, and topped with grilled tilapia and hibi. And then there’s the cactus-like karimbuaya, tangy and mildly spicy, which makes a great stuffing for roast chicken—this dish, by the way, is something you can easily order at Hotel Luna where executive chef Robby Goco (of Cyma and Green Pastures fame) has created the Lechon Manok Iloko. There are also whimsical ingredients like siling duwag, so called because it looks fiery hot but actually doesn’t have a kick. For the adventurous foodie, Vigan has many possibilities.
Combining old and new
The charm of Vigan is how easily the traditional and modern meld together in the city’s scenery. In a single day, you can have a modern breakfast of Vigan longanisa, garlic rice and fried egg. You can wander down Calle Crisologo with its timeless charm. You might go shopping for abel, traditional Ilokano cloth, made into placemats and table runners. Perhaps drop by the burnay factory to watch how the traditional jars made with clay and black sand are still made by hand (burnay are the traditional containers for vinegar, basi, water, sugar and other food stuffs). Then cap off the day with a shot of single malt or a cocktail. Vigan is an entirely different world that invites you to linger and get to know it.
The perfect thin-crust pizza
An evening at Café Leona is an experience to remember, from the cozy ambience brought about by chipped walls and hardwood furniture, to the astonishingly good thin-crust pizzas that smell incredible as they’re brought to you straight from the wood-fired oven. The restaurant occupies the house formerly owned by Leona Florentino, a 19th century poet, satirist and playwright. The best time to go is in the early evenings when tables are set outdoors. You can dine al fresco within view of the plaza, from where the rippling sound of the fountains adds to the experience. It’s the perfect place to sit with your pizza and cold beer and watch the sleepy world of Vigan go by.
An iconic empanada
Made with galapong (rice flour) fried to a thin crispiness and dipped in sukang Iloko, Vigan’s empanada is justifiably famous for its wonderful flavor. Irene Santos, a fourth generation empanada maker, says that the original empanada of her youth used to be made with only vegetable filling, usually green papaya, togue, monggo, sometimes shredded carrots. The modern version, of course, is made more hearty with the addition of egg and Vigan longanisa. To get a taste of authentic Vigan empanada, drop by Irene’s Vigan Empanada where she sells it in the classic version, and in variations like longa-chicken, beef, crab, tuna and vegetarian empanada. Her okoy is worth trying, too.Salcedo Street, Vigan, Ilocos Sur, (077) 722-8239, 722-0581, 723-1517
A meal at the mansion
Among the imposing heritage houses that grace Vigan, none is more striking than the Syquia Mansion, built in the 19th century by migrant Chinese businessman Vicente Ruperto Romero Sy Quia, originally from Am Thau in Am Oy, China. He married a local lass, Petronila Encarnacion, and their granddaughter, Alicia Syquia, became the wife of Elpidio Quirino, the 6th President of the Philippines.
The magnificent home boasts high ceilings and hardwood floors. The walls bear intricate carvings, and the rooms gleam with the sheen of antique wood and old porcelain. From the rather bare first floor, one climbs the stairs to the receiving area graced with a copy of Juan Luna’s Spoliarium. In the old days, ordinary guests were lucky to be allowed this far into the house. VIPs were taken into the salon, a large airy room replete with European furniture, paintings, huge mirrors and various antique bric-a-brac. The entire house represented just how feudal Vigan must have been in the old days.
The Syquias became fabulously wealthy and stories spread about their chests of jewels, the chapel filled with diamond- and gold-encrusted religious statues, and other extravagance. The mansion is now operated as a museum, but is nevertheless still occupied by the descendants of President Quirino, who consider it their ancestral home. It is also still cared for by the same family of caretakers, today represented by Rusty Ponce, who is also Syquia Mansion’s tour guide.
On the day of our visit, Rusty served a homecooked meal using recipes beloved by the family throughout the generations. In the mansion’s impressive dining room, he brought out a very Ilokano spread of dishes. There was poque poque, with its combination of eggplant, bagoong and garlic. He made a seasonal mushroom soup flavored with shrimp, a patis base and dahon ng sili. There was dinaldalen and igado which, he explained, were often made with extenders of peas, garbanzos, potatoes. And because he had come from his family’s small farm to gather ingredients just the day before, he had managed to get his hands on some small frogs which he cooked in a stew with garlic, paminta, atsuete and kamias using the second wash of rice for the broth—it was exotic yet surprisingly delicious with the kamias giving a pleasing sourness.
For dessert, Rusty served a real treasure: binubudan. He explained that after rice and labadura (yeast) are combined to make rice wine and allowed to ferment for a few days, one can remove the fermented rice, strain it, sprinkle it with sugar and serve—it’s milky and tangy and has a pleasant, slightly alcoholic tinge. A very nice end to a surprisingly homey meal in this grand home.Syquia Mansion, Quirino Boulevard, Vigan
Pinakbet, from farm to table
Just a short drive from Vigan, Pinakbet Farm in Caoayan is a delight to visit. The outfit consists of a mini farm and an open air, gazebo-inspired restaurant set on the banks of the Mestizo River which, centuries ago, was one of the busy routes for the Spanish galleon trade. The restaurant serves dishes made with organic veggies grown on the farm, and fresh tilapia caught from the river. A mere P200 gets you a mouthwatering lunch of pinakbet served in bamboo, grilled tilapia, grilled pork or chicken with unlimited rice (how very Pinoy) and the ubiquitous KBL, the trinity of kamatis, bagoong and lasuna (tomato, fermented fish paste and shallots) that accompanies almost all Ilokano meals. For dessert, you can suck on a piece of balicucha, or hardened sugar.
Pinakbet Farm is a project of Caoayan major Germy Singson, who wanted to find a way to attract more tourists. The menu epitomizes the Ilokano’s love for fresh, succulent vegetables and simple cooking techniques. And part of the charm comes from its very rural ambience—guests can even catch their own fish for lunch! The fresh air, the wonderful vegetables, and a cultural show that showcases traditional Iloko and Filipino songs that celebrate life’s milestones, from courtship to marriage to birth, a nostalgic peek into Ilokano provincial life. Definitely a must-visit.Pinakbet Farm, Caoayan, Ilocos Sur (0927) 564-0202
No visit to Vigan is complete without feasting on Vigan longanisa. This celebrated pork sausage is plump, garlicky and best when dipped in Iloko vinegar flavored with lots of chili, garlic and onions. For the best longanisa, head to Delma Quimson, scion of a family of longanisa and bagnet makers. She learned the secret of the timpla (how to season the longanisa to get the right taste) from her mother, Magdalena Cabutaje, and has grown the business so successfully that she now produces around 70 kilos of longanisa on an average day, and around 600 kilos during Holy Week and other peak days.
Vigan longanisa is an old favorite, present on the Ilokano’s tables since the days of the Spanish galleon trade. The traditional way to cook it is in a pan of water; when the water has evaporated, one allows the longanisa to cook in its own fat until crisp and slightly caramelized. It’s the perfect breakfast dish.Delma’s Longanisa & Bagnet, Barangay Pagpartian, Vigan, (0916) 662-6877
A magnificent home away from home
Whether your stay in Vigan is long or short, you should definitely consider checking into Hotel Luna. This four-story boutique hotel is the first museum-hotel in the country, named after painter Juan Luna who was also an Ilokano. Pass through its doors and the lobby immediately inspires awe with bronze sculptures by Napoleon Abueva, Araceli Dans’ stunning painting “Shawl of the Innocents,” and a splendid 21-ray carved wooden sun, a sculptural piece by Mulawin Abueva, made using five types of Philippine hardwood. It’s a tremendous welcome.
The hotel itself provides a remarkable level of luxurious comfort, from the uber-comfortable beds to the oustanding dining options. Chula Bar, named after a series of Juan Luna’s paintings, is a wonderful nightspot with its selection of tapas and pintxos, single malts and cocktails. Comedor Restaurant has a pleasing selection of authentic Ilokano dishes, bestselling paellas, international favorites and desserts. It’s an essential stop even if just to sample some of Chef Robby Goco’s Ilokano-inspired dishes like dinengdeng or Lechon Manok Iloko which is stuffed with karimbuaya, a local herb you won’t find in Manila. And for dessert, definitely try the brazo de Mercedes cupcake, a real find!Hotel Luna, Luna Street, Vigan, (032) 373-3333, hotelluna.ph
Sun, Sand and Sea
Built on a cove in Santiago is Hotel Luna’s sister resort, Vitalis, a 20-room beach resort named after Macario Vitalis, a famous Ilokano painter who settled in Brittany, France. With a beautiful view of the sea, Vitalis has a comforting menu of Filipino grilled favorites— pusit, tuna belly, pork liempo, chicken, baby back ribs—perfect served on a bed of rice, just perfect for sharing. You can order seafood from crabs, scallops, sea urchin to lobsters, accompanied by local sidings like okoy, a variety of ensalada and native desserts. It’s the perfect place when you yearn to get away from town even for just a short while.Vitalis Resort and Spa, Sabangan, Santiago, Ilocos Sur, (032) 373-3333, email@example.com
Photographs by Pia Puno
This story first appeared on Food Magazine Issue August - September 2014.