Ilocos sits in the northwestern part of the Philippines and is said to have one of the country’s strong culinary traditions.
While in the Philippines attending the TBEX 2016, travel bloggers conference, we had a chance to travel to Pampanga, the Culinary Capital of the Philippines, as well as explore the unique regional cuisine of the north.
Ilocos, located at the northern tip of the Philippines is bordered by the China Sea. It is home to many World Heritage Unesco sites as well as several National Historic Landmarks.
Years of trade between Asia and the Americas, combined with the local biodiversity make Ilocos renowned for its amazing Ilocano dishes.
Ilocos food is surprising, delicious, and exotic all at the same time. Some of the regional specialties, like pinakbet and dinuguan (savory pig’s blood) are now part of the national cuisine.
While the list of Ilocano regional specialties is extensive, here are 9 unique llocos food not to miss on your travels to the north of the Philippines.
#1- Longganisa – A Vigan Food Speciality
Longganisa is an emblematic Ilocos food. These pork sausages are the star at any Ilocano table. The sausages from Vigan are the most famous and they are distinctly small and plump.
We tried this Ilocano specialty while visiting Vigan in Ilocos Sur, a well preserved Spanish town, dating back to the 16th century.
These sausages are made from ground pork, mixed with garlic, vinegar and a mix of other local seasonings. They are delicious and have a spicy bite. These traditional sausages are not to be missed on a trip to the Ilocos region.
#2- Batac Empanadas – Striking Orange Empanadas
After falling in love with empanadas in Argentina, we could not wait to discover the traditional empanadas of Batac City. Batac is the oldest town in the Province of Ilocos Norte and was founded in 1587 by the Augustinians.
The city is famous for the Batac Empanadas which are considered some of the best in the country. There is even an Empanada festival that takes place every year on the 23rd of June.
One of the most striking characteristics of the Batac empanada is its bright orange color. The empanadas are deep-fried and stuffed with green papaya, chopped up longganisa sausages and hard-boiled eggs. The orange-colored dough is made of rice flour and the color comes from the use of annatto seeds.
Annatto is popular in South America and is used a dye, medicine, and as an ingredient in many foods. It is a natural food coloring and makes for a fun eating experience.
These empanadas are quite tasty and very different from the ones in Argentina. They are in their own right an experience not to be missed.
In the short video below, see how the locals make these Ilocos delicacies at Lanie’s Batac Special Empanada Restaurant, located in Batac, Ilocos Norte.
#3- Bagnet – Deep Fried Crispy Pork Cracklings
The Ilocano Bagnet is also known as Chicharon Baboy or deep-fried pork meat. It is pork belly deep-fried in its own fat. Once fried, it is air-dried up to drain the fat. The process is repeated over and over until the pork reached is maximum crispiness.
This Ilocano dish was far from being our favorite. Because pork and fat are so predominant in Filipino food, it is hard to skip this Ilocos food. Bagnet is a top favorite among Filipinos and if you love eating fried pork, you will be delighted.
Like the locals, wash down bagnet with San Miguel, a popular Filipino beer.
#4- Pinakbet – Popular Mixed Vegetable Ilocos Food
Pinakbet is a popular Ilocano vegetable dish that can be found all over the country. It is a vegetable stew made with tomatoes, eggplant, string beans, okra, and bitter gourd.
The preparation of this dish varies by region and the authentic Ilocano version uses small round eggplants and baby bitter gourd (ampalaya). Ilocano pinakbet uses a much loved fermented fish sauce called bagoong isda to season the dish.
For a vegetable dish, one of the most interesting things about this Ilocano dish is that it is not vegetarian. The mixed vegetables are usually steamed in fish or shrimp sauce.
Other versions of Pinakbet include pork. For instance, we were quite surprised to find chunks of pork in a Pinakbet dish we had in Manila. If you are looking for a purely vegetable dish, be sure to ask for no pork or seafood with your vegetables.
#5- Okoy – Best Shrimp Fritters from Vigan
These delicious treats are crispy shrimp fritters cooked in their shell in a glutinous rice batter and shaped into a round form. These fritters are garnished with fresh shallots and a mix of garlic and chili peppers.
The unique flavors come to life when dipped in an Ilocos style vinegar called sukang iloko.
We enjoyed these flavorful fritters as snacks. These Ilocanos delicacies are an easy bite while waiting for dinner.
#6- Poqui-Poqui – An Ilocano Grilled Eggplant Dish
This simple Ilocano dish will please any vegetarian. In a country, where pork is a daily staple, it is hard to find any dish that is not served with meat or fish. However, you will find eggs battered in Poqui-Poqui.
Poqui-poqui is made of grilled eggplants sauteed with onions, garlic and tomatoes. Eggs are added and stirred with the other ingredients. All the ingredients are cooked together making this Ilocos delicacy slightly soupy.
Don’t be deceived by this simple dish. We found Poqui-poqui to be a very refreshing dish, easy to eat with lighter ingredients than the other Ilocanos dishes. It can be eaten as an appetizer, a main dish or a side dish.
The unusual name Poqui-poqui, is said to have originated from Hawaii where Filipinos migrated in the 1980’s. There, the word “poki” means “mash” or “slice” which aptly describes the texture of this Ilocano dish. You may find this dish written as “poki-poki” or “poqui-poqui”.
#7- Garlic at the Sinait Garlic Festival
Garlic also known as locally as “bawang” is a root crop that is native to the Ilocos region of the Philippines.
This essential food condiment is found in every Filipino kitchen and is used to add flavor to almost every dish. What makes this particular garlic unique is that it is more pungent and aromatic compared to garlic from other countries.
Every year, from May 1st – May 3rd, thousands of locals and foreign tourist flock to Sinait town in Ilocos Sur which is also referred to as the Garlic Capital of the North.
Because we were in the Philippines in October, we did not make it to the Garlic Festival. This local festival celebrates this Ilocos delicacy in many ways.
Festivities includes local dancing competitions in garlic-inspired costume, the selection of Miss Garlic Festival as well as the biggest garlic contest. It also elect the longest and most creative twined garlic.
#8- The Dragon Fruit in Ilocos Norte
Along the roads in Ilocos, we were struck by multiple stands selling dragon fruits, all over the place. The dragon fruit known as “saniata” to locals, is produced by Ilocanos all year round.
We learned that Dragon Fruit was started by a local entrepreneur named Edita Dacuycuy, who started growing dragon fruits in her backyard several years ago. She spread her passion to other farmers and has been instrumental to promoting dragon fruits in the area.
Today, she manages Refmad Farms, with her daughter in Burgos town, where tourists and locals can learn about dragon fruits and pick it off fresh off the trees.
Dragon Fruits are a beautiful fruit and packed with several health benefits. The fiber in dragon fruit helps with digestion. The fruit also helps regulate blood sugar spikes and lowers bad cholesterol. Dragon fruits are also full of antioxidants which help clear the body of cancer causing free radicals. And, the fruits are rich in Vitamin B1, B2 and C, which help repair tissues and keeping the skin healthy.
Ilocos Norte, hosts a Dragon Fruit Festival every July. If you are in the area at this time, don’t miss tasting this Ilocano food. You can alsoexperience other dragon fruit products like ice cream, jam, wine, vinegar, tea, cookies, pastries, soaps and more.
#9- Ilocos Chicacorn: Popular Local Filipino Snack
Chichacorn are a favorite snack from Ilocos Norte. They are basically corn kernels that are cooked until crunchy. The corn variety used are white ones from plants that are common in the Philippines and not the sweet yellow corn that may be more familiar.
What makes the Ilocos Chichacorn different from the other types of crunchy corn kernels is that the kernels are puffed, making them a little easier to chew.
We enjoyed these snacks while traveling around the Ilocos region. We discovered several flavors including; garlic, cheese, sweet and spicy, adobo, and barbecue. Our favorite was the garlic flavor.
If you’d like to try this popular Ilocos snack, you can get Chichacorn on Amazon.
#10- Dudol an Ilocano Food with Asian Roots
Dudol is a traditional dessert you will find in Ilocos, although it is also popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern India. It is said to have come through the Malay and Indian settlements on the coastal towns of the Ilocos region before the arrival of the Spaniards.
Dudol is made of rice flour, coconut milk, sugarcane juice and anise. The secret to making a good dudol is to patiently and continuously stir the ingredients under a slow fire.
Sticky, thick and sweet, it is the perfect snack to calm your hunger or re-energize yourself after some activity.
Dudol is the featured local treat during Guling-Guling festival in Paoay.
Paoay is a coastal town home to one of the famous famous Unesco World Heritage in Ilocos Norte. During the Guling-Guling festival, the city celebrates its heritage and Asian roots and Dudol makes for the perfect symbol of the Ilocos food heritage.
The Ilocos region, famous for its cultural and historical sites, is worth exploring and most notably for its popular Ilocos food.
From Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte to the Historic City of Vigan, in Ilocos Sur, you travel through unique heritage Ilocano dishes.
Discover the unique produce of the region from garlic to dragon fruits. Surprising empanadas, pork belly meat, and sweet glutinous rice, everything to conquer your palate.
Have you had Ilocos food before? In the comments below, please let us know which Ilocos food you are most tempted by.
Savor The Adventure!
We were delighted to be part of the Ilocos World Heritage Tour organized by the Tourism Promotions Board of the Philippines. Opinions expressed in this article are always our own.
Where to Stay in Laoag City and Vigan
Fort Ilocandia Resort, Laoag City
On your travels to Laoag City, the capital of Ilocos Norte province book your stay at Fort Ilocandia Resort.
We stayed at this hotel and enjoyed the modern and traditional architecture. With the friendly staff and delicious Filipino cuisine, you will enjoy the relaxing ambiance.
Check pricing and book your stay at when you click Fort Ilocandia Resort.
Hotel Luna, Vigan
Hotel Luna is the first and only museum hotel in the Philippines. It is located in Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur Province. Vigan is one of the few Spanish towns in Asia, and probably the best preserved, dating back to 16th century.
Hotel Luna’s spacious guest rooms and suites will welcome you with sophisticated Spanish interiors and stunning works of art. The hotel is minutes away from the world famous Calle Crisologo, known for its Spanish colonial architectural legacy.
We enjoyed the stunning architecture, the hospitable staff, and amazing Filipino delights.
While in Vigan, book your stay when you click Hotel Luna.
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Claire, ex-engineer, is a digital nomad and content creator at Authentic Food Quest. Since 2015, with her partner, Rosemary, they travel the world in search of the best local food experiences. Their mission is to help you enjoy the best local specialties on your travels or via recipes in your home kitchen. Favorite country for food: Vietnam. Favorite local dish: Hainanese Chicken Rice. Favorite way to keep fit: Cycling. Claire is responsible for the website and the fun food & travel videos on Youtube. She is also co-author of Authentic Food Quest Argentina and Authentic Food Quest Peru, available on Amazon.