by LYN V. RAMO
LEGAZPI CITY — In just three visits to Albay, I have come to love many delightful Albayanon delicacies that tended to awaken the culinary writer in me.
These delicacies could not be fully appreciated by those who just stare and take photographs. In fact, these delicacies have squeezed all the gastronomic juices in me.
Some of the Bicol nuts (Photo by Lyn V. Ramo / bulatlat.com)
Besides the crunchy pili nut, which now comes in three preparations: caramelized with honey, salted and brittle style, the delicacies make use of local food crops coconut, rice, taro leaves, bananas, mangoes and many other fruits.
The first that caught my attention was the stewed rolled taro leaves on which coconut milk has been wrapped, then further cooked in more gata, or coconut milk for hours until the gata curdles.
Locals call this pinangat, and would gladly lead the visitor to Camalig town, where they say, the best pinangat comes from.
I tasted my first pinangat in 2009, when we took a van on our way to Manila from Catanduanes. A local from Virac told us to stop by Camalig to get the packages and we had it frozen. The long journey took its toll on the pinangat, it thawed and eventually got spoiled from the 12-hour trip, that no amount of freezing reversed the spoilage.
So unlucky, indeed, because in Catanduanes, local folk keep suggesting that we order pinangat but too bad, the weather then was not too good to have the taro leaves well-dried.
Our hosts told us that a certain type of taro is needed for the delicacy but at that particular time of year, it was not available.
In Legazpi City, I was told that the best pinangat really comes from Camalig.
It was during the luncheon that Gov. Joey Salceda hosted for journalists affiliated with the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists (PNEJ) that I finally had a fill of pinangat, served along with other courses.
Pinangat comes with Bicol sinangag or fried rice topped with shredded deboned tinapa (smoked fish), thinly sliced green mangoes, chopped tomatoes and sliced raw onions or shallots.
Delicious crabs of Bicol (Photo by Lyn V. Ramo / bulatlat.com)
Sinangag is usually served for breakfast but in Bicol, I had my sinangag for lunch. Actually, in Pangasinan, where I was raised, our meals could consist only of the Bicol sinangag. It is so complete to include cereals, fats, vitamins and minerals from the three food groups in the food pyramid.
Recently local folks in a Bacacay village served us linupak or nilupak, for breakfast. It is made from boiled green bananas, crushed with a small mortar-and-pestle with brown sugar, shredded young coconut and roasted peanuts and later topped with margarine, cheese and more crushed peanuts.
This reminds me of my Bai Sinai, who cooked green bananas for Maundy Thursday. We used to dip the boiled seba in brown sugar or pulitipot, bagasse from sugar cane.
Our nilupak is cassava, boiled and passed through a meat grinder with margarine and white sugar.
Lunch in Bacaca consisted of crabs cooked in plain salt and water, native chicken adobo sa gata and native chicken tinola. What I loved most is the sauteed ubod ng niog, with a generous spattering of small river crabs. It is so good, my colleagues and I just stopped eating after someone told us that a coconut had to be felled to get the young top.
I also learned that a throng had to be mobilized to cut up the ubod into chewable bite-size.
Halo-halo in Tiwi was the best. It looked like the usual halu-halo, but tasted richer with coconut milk as creamer. I had my first Bicol halu-halo in Tabaco, but this one from a Tiwi halu-halo store is so different. The first serving always calls for another.
Guinobatan served the best suman I ever tasted. It was made from malagkit (glutinous rice), a dash of salt and gata (coconut milk) wrapped in young abaca or banana leaves and boiled in thin gata until the pot exudes a rich aroma of gata and the cooking leaves.
Bicolanos have a name for this type of suman, but it has slipped my mind.
There is another type of suman wrapped in certain kind of leaves from a wild plant. Unlike the suman, it is made from cassava or banana and shredded coconut boiled in water. This one resembles our Pangasinense pinais, only, it is wrapped in banana leaves.
My favorite pili delicacy is the whole fruit, soaked in hot water for less than 20 minutes. The secret is in the timong. It has to be less than 20 minutes, lest the pili will harden and could not be eaten. Old Albayanons eat it with salted fish pate, or bagoong, to the Ilocanos and Pangasinenses and steamed white rice. I took mine solo from the hard seeds, and I got a tasty paste-like creamy delicacy. The taste is hal-way like the flesh that cover the durian seed, minus the stench and sweet taste of durian.
With an array of exotic and enticing Bicol cuisine before our eyes, the visiting journalists agree on one thing. They served us the best delicacies that more than satisfied our cravings but the best meals are those we had with the local folks in the villages.