Ilocos Province : Our world up North

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While most provinces in the countryside have caught up with the wave of modernization and the comforts of modern living, Ilocanos continue to enjoy the simplicity and charm of Ilocos life.

Yet, the Ilocos province today has come a long way from the harsh conditions of the land – a mixed landscape of coastal waters and agricultural lands straddled by sand dunes, riverbeds and hardwood forests. The hardy and assiduous Ilocanos have built their character upon the same cruel landscapes marked by a prolonged dry season and by generally rocky and sandy soil.

Understandably, the difficult conditions of early Ilocos life are reflective of the Ilocanos’ distinct character as frugal because produce was limited to what the land and the sea could churn out. The local’s penchant for salty dishes is influenced as well by the stretch of sea beds scattered across Ilocos towns.

Ilocos Norte for example remains a destination of choice for most tourists looking for traces of the genteel past which is still etched even in province’s nerve center in the capital city of Laoag.

Presently the prime commercial center of the province, Laoag remains to be a blend of the traditional and the new face of Ilocos centuries later from the Spanish colonial period when the Spaniards discovered the region in 1572.

While medium-rise buildings have started growing like mushrooms in this capital city, patches of heritage structures remain squeezed within commercial strips right at the heart of the city. Icons of Spanish influence ranging from colonial houses, tabacaleras (brick tobacco warehouses) and churches stand as mute witnesses to the rich Ilocos history.

One of such historical edifices is the Museo Iloco nicknamed as Gameng (from the Ilocano word that means treasure) which is housed in the centuries-old Spanish brick warehouse originally known as the Camarin de Tabacco dela Tabacalera.

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Sitting next to the provincial capitol, the brick structure is now the only functional edifice among five such structures built around Ilocos Norte during the Spanish period. All other tabacaleras built in the towns of San Nicolas, Currimao, Bacarra and Dingras have become mere icons of Spanish occupation.

Established in 1999, the Museo enhances the cultural and historical heritage of Ilocanos and provides tourists a window to Ilocano culture.

The Museo just launched in November this year the Gameng Learning Center for Ilocos Norte Traditions and a Sarusar shop (gift shop) showcasing Ilocos’ ethnicity and distinctive products. Souvenir and gift items such as abel Iloco (handwoven cloth), basi, handicrafts and Ilocano-made food stuff are available at the Sarusar.

The Museo is located at Gen. Luna corner Llanes Streets in Laoag. Tel Nos. (077) 770-4587; Fax: (077) 7703836.

While in Laoag, sports aficionados can explore an 85 square kilometer-stretch of sand dunes in the seaside village of La Paz (Bantay Bimmaboy to locals) in a rugged four-wheel drive under the cruel Ilocos sun.

A protected geological monument because of its unique land formation, the La Paz sand dunes have been popularized as an outdoor adventure site for the daring tourists.

The sand adventure was popularized by the PINAKBET group or Province of Ilocos Norte Adventurers, Kampers, Bikers and Eco-Tourism.

The group derived its name from the quintessential Ilocano vegetable dish pinakbet which is the contracted form of the Ilocano word “pinakebbet”, meaning shrunk or shriveled.

Locals make use of bagoong (fish paste), or fermented monamon (a fish variety) or other fish selection.

The basic vegetables used in this dish include native bitter melon, eggplant, tomato, ginger, okra, string beans, lima beans, chili peppers and winged beans.

Ilocanos may be frugal with their resources but don’t expect them to be subtle on the table. Expect the locals to stage any kind of gathering in order to invite visitors to a padaya (a festive party) where traditional cuisine is served for as many as there are folks living within the village.

Restaurant owner Pamela Aragoza worked within the framework of an Ilocano food gathering for her dining place named in honor of her mother Preciosa.

The La Preciosa restaurant has become a byword in the culinary business outside the province and abroad where Ilocano balikbayans and tourists alike would come together for a family gathering each time they visit Ilocos Norte.

La Preciosa pioneered fine-dining restaurant in the North beginning the 1950s when the family matriarch Severa Ablan Ventura opened the Modern Kitchenette in downtown Laoag to Ilocanos looking for regular home-cooked food whipped up differently.

Severa later passed her skill for practical cooking to Preciosa who soon opened her own restaurant which she named as Peppermint Kitchenette offering a mix of colonial, Filipino and Ilocano cuisines. It was no surprise that Preciosa’s daughter Pamela would later continue the tradition of home-cooking through her own dining place.

La Preciosa restaurant is located along Rizal St, Laoag City with telephone number (077) 7731162.

Other home-grown food businesses include the Herencia Café right across the majestic Paoay Church and the C and E pizza pasta restaurant.

The Herencia café offers Ilocano cuisine but its original recipe, the pinakbet pizza is a hit among local and foreign tourists. It is located along Mc Arthur Highway Barangay 14, Sangladan Paoay, Ilocos Norte with telephone number 614-0214.

The C and E pizza whipped up its own Bagnet pizza to maximize the popularity of the bagnet or crispy pork chunk. The pizza is topped with a generous amount of bagnet chunks while gamet strips (or Japanese nori) add a twist to its taste. The resto offers assorted pizza and pasta but its bestseller is its original recipe the carbonara pizza. Resto owner Candy Caluya derived her business name from the initials of her parents Constante and Estelita.

It is located along Gen. Luna St. Laoag City with telephone number 09285240606.

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