THE first time I ever visited the Northeastern province of Isabela was in January of 2013, when my husband Raff and I joined a busload of Manila-based media to cover Isabela’s colorful and vibrant Bambanti Festival. It became my introduction to the cuisine of Isabela, as the group got to taste a lot of the dishes and native delicacies that locals enjoyed during the four days that we were there. Moriecos, binallay, inatata, the lobsters of Palanan, Pancit Cabagan, longganisa, the tilapia of Magat Dam… They left a ‘delicious’ impression on me.
Last May (2014), Raff and I got to reacquaint our taste buds with the cuisine of Isabela, as we joined a small group of journalists assembled by spot.ph’s Angelo Comsti – the group included Ige Ramos of Bandera and SansRival Magazine, Tata Mapa and Pam Santos of Smile Magazine, Nana Caragay and Paul del Rosario of Turista Magazine – who went on a food tour of Isabela upon the invitation of Francis Faustino ‘Kiko’ Dy, son of Isabela Governor Bojie Dy. Kiko is also barangay captain of San Fabian, Echague, Isabela, and head of all barangay captains in the province.
Arriving via the Tuguegarao Airport in neighboring Cagayan, our service van for the duration of our stay in Isabela took us straight to the residence of Governor Dy in Cauayan City. The First Couple of Isabela was out of the country at that time, but Kiko and his business partner Jessica Gallegos were there to welcome us. It was already late afternoon, and early dinner was going to be in the Governor’s house.
Instead of relaxing in the living room while dinner was being prepared, the group decided to head for the kitchen, where we found Barangay Captain Rodolfo dela Cruz of Barangay Nagcampegan of Cauayan City cooking his signature Siniwsiwan. A variation of the classic Filipino blood stew Dinuguan, Siniwsiwan was a creation of the barangay captain using the freshly drained blood of native chicken, whose innards are also used as a main ingredient in combination with vinegar, shallots, ginger, water and chopped spring onion.
What makes Siniwsiwan different is that the chicken blood is drained straight into a bowl with half a bottle of local vinegar. This is set aside for the moment, while Captain Rodolfo sautees the chicken innards with shallots and spring onion over low heat. Then the blood with vinegar is added in, plus water, if needed, and then seasoned to taste.
Also in the kitchen was Jay ‘Venus’ Castaneda, a fresh graduate of a technical teacher education course at the Isabela State University and grand champion of the recently concluded Isabela’s Master Kusinero cooking competition. The cooking competition went through a gruelling elimination round by district (it drew participants from 16 districts in Isabela), challenging the participants to whip up delicious dishes using ingredients given them at the last minute – Market Basket style – before entering the grand finals, where 19-year-old Jay prevailed. For bagging the championship, he took home a cash prize of Php100,000 and a culinary scholarship in Manila.
Isabela’s Master Kusinero showed us his mettle by recreating two of the dishes that helped him win the championship – Queen Isabela’s Treasure, a tilapia roulade, stuffed with a red rice and tilapia filling, wrapped with bacon, then breaded and deep-fried to golden perfection; and Malongga, a mixture of Isabela longganisa with grated corn, wrapped in banana leaves and deep-fried, and named after the Tagalog words mais (corn) and longganisa (meat sausage), the two main ingredients of the dish.
Jay also made Stuffed Finana, which is saba (plantain) bananas stuffed with a flaked tilapia and ground munggo (mung beans) filling; as well as Adobo Isabelleno, pork cooked in gata (coconut milk) with samak vinegar. Samak vinegar, explains Jay, was the result of a vinegar-making experiment that they conducted in school using leaves from the samak tree, which can be found in bountiful quantity in Isabela.
A huge bowl of Tinola also made it to the dinner table afterwards. It was made using the four native chickens whose blood and innards Captain Rodolfo dela Cruz used to make his famous Siniwsiwan. The kitchen staff of Governor Dy had browned the roughly sliced ginger in a little oil, added garlic and onion and continued to saute a little longer, then put in the cut-up native chicken and cooked them in just enough water until tender. Lightly seasoned only, the Tinola turned out to be really good, the freshness of the chicken coming out and the ginger-y soup rounding out the comforting flavors.
Everyone had their fill for early dinner, after which we did a run-down of the following day’s itinerary and, realizing that a long and full day lay ahead, we boarded the van soon after dinner and it took us to the Governor’s Mansion in Ilagan City. The Governor’s Mansion, which stood right behind the Provincial Capitol of Isabela and the sprawling Plaza Isabela in front of it, was to be our home for the next few days. A receiving place for guests of the Provincial Government, the Governor’s Mansion had a pocket garden in the middle and was surrounded by receiving rooms, dining rooms and guest rooms equipped with their own toilet-baths. Jessica assisted us with our room assignments, and we all retired early for the night – looking forward to a whole day of ‘discovering’ the culinary gems of Isabela the next day.
– to be continued –