If you ask the average Filipino what Ilocano cooking is all about, he’ll likely say, “Bagnet, empanada and pinakbet.” Of course, Ilocano cooking is much, much more than those three dishes. But bagnet, Ilocano empanada and pinakbet are sort of iconic and they are loved by Ilocanos and non-Ilocanos alike.
What is pinakbet? It is a a pork and vegetable stew with shrimp paste. There are as many recipes as there are cooks, some Ilocanos claim that only the Tagalog version of the dish includes squash, others say otherwise because, like most regional dishes with peasant origin, pinakbet is really about cooking with whatever ingredients are on hand. Therefore, although there are vegetables that are considered traditional for cooking pinakbet — like ampalaya (bitter gourd), malunggay pods and okra — it is not the presence of all traditional pinakbet vegetables in the dish that makes it pinakbet. Rather, it is about how it is cooked and how it tastes.
I say all that because Filipinos can be ridiculously regionalistic when it comes to food. And many Filipinos judge the authenticity of a dish not so much by cultural or historical standards but by the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked them to the point that they will insist that a recipe is wrong unless it is exactly the same as their mothers’ and grandmothers’. There are even some who say that unless you’re a true-blue Ilocano, you can’t cook Ilocano dishes properly. Filial love and regional loyalty are nice but, you know, cooking just doesn’t work that way.
And just how should pinakbet taste? It’s a bit complex, truth be told, because aside from the seasonings, the vegetables all have distinct flavors and all the flavors meld together as they simmer away with the pork. In simplistic terms, pinakbet is salty (a distinctive kind of saltiness because of the shrimp paste), a little sweet and a little spicy.
For best results, the best meat for cooking pinakbet is bagnet. No bagnet on hand? Use lechon kawali. Otherwise, if plain pork belly is all you’ve got, just make sure that you brown the pork well before adding the vegetables. Seriously. Plain boiled pork won’t give this dish justice. The pork has to have substantial texture.
Pinakbet, an Ilocano pork and vegetable stew
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil
- 2 cup bagnet diced (lechon kawali or well-browned pork belly will do too)
- 1 onion thinly sliced
- 3 tomatoes diced
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 thumb-sized piece ginger chopped
- 2 tablespoons shrimp paste
- patis (fish sauce) (fish sauce), to taste
- freshly cracked black pepper
- pinch sugar for balance
- 6 okra diced
- 1 cup sitaw (yard-long beans) cut into two-inch-lengths
- 2 eggplants diced
- 1 to 2 cups squash diced
- 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups bone broth
- Heat the cooking oil in a frying pan.
- Add the pork, garlic, ginger, onion and tomatoes. Season with the bagoong, patis, black pepper and sugar. Toss around just until heated through.
- Add the vegetables. The ones that take longest to cook go in first. There really is no hard and fast rule there as to which vegetable takes longest to cook because some vegetables are more mature than others. In short, I can’t say that, in strict terms, the sitaw and the okra should go on first. They should if they’re mature because they’ll need to cook longer than the eggplants and the squash. But if they are very tender, it is possible that they will cook in the same amount of time as the eggplants and the squash.
- In my case, the okra and the sitaw were quite mature so I threw them in first. After adding the first batch of vegetables (or all the vegetables, whichever is true in your case), pour in the broth. How much? Just enough to wet the vegetables, not to totally cover them. You’re going to stew them, not make a soup out of them. The broth has to be just enough so that by the time the vegetables are done, you have a little sauce that has thickened a bit.
- So, after adding the broth, bring to the boil and let boil, uncovered, for a couple of minutes. Lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer. Avoid stirring to prevent the vegetables from breaking apart. Rather, toss and swirl the pan from time to time.
- When the vegetables are done, the pinakbet is ready to serve. Best with rice.