As the second largest province in the country, there’s so much about Isabela worth learning about. It may not be top of mind for most tourists, but in truth there’s a lot to discover. I emerged from a four-day trip with a notebook full of notes and a camera loaded with photos capturing everything of interest both to the eye and palate—from wide rice fields to miniscule mung beans. There’s a treasure trove of structures made rich by history, a people made significant by their drive and character, and food made delicious by ingredients harvested from this sprawling backyard.
With its long stretches of fertile land and access to the Pacific coast, Isabela produced a cuisine teeming with variety and bounty, spiced with tradition and the creativity of a crop of young chefs.
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But first, the sights
Begin your journey with a visit to Isabela’s historical churches. The San Pablo Church, built in the 17th century, is among the oldest churches in the Cagayan Valley. It was almost completely destroyed during World War II when it was set ablaze. A third of the church, including the belfry, remains while the rest had been reconstructed. The brick-laden San Matias Church in Tumauini has a charm of its own being the only church with a cylindrical bell tower in the country.
The Magat Dam is a majestic sight to behold. Built in 1975 and starting operations in 1983, the dam sits at the boundary of Alfonso Lista, Ifugao and Ramon, Isabela. People can drive to the location and take snapshots of its beautiful and awe-inspiring views.
As an archipelago, the Philippines boasts many regions with their own take on the classics. Visit the town of Cauayan to discover this province’s version of our favorite native pork sausage or longganisa. Belen Recometa-Holgado has been making her special longganisa for more than 30 years now, and it has gotten quite a following over time. They have that perfect balance between meat and fat, sweet and salty, thus the locals love it. She easily sells about 60 kilos a day in her modest stall at the Cauayan market.
At the forefront of Isabela’s delicacies is Aling Francing’s moriecos, which she makes loads of every day, along with other specialties like tupig and bibingka galapong. Moriecos is basically galapong that hides a generous layer of latik in the middle. It’s wrapped in a banana leaf then steamed to a delightfully chewy texture. It is loved by so many that it even reaches people overseas.
Another must-try delicacy is binallay, a simple steamed rice cake made with rice flour, water and salt. When served, it is doused generously with latik. According to the locals, it is typically made and enjoyed every Holy Week. Fortunately, Felicidad Baggao makes binallay the whole year round,so buyers can appease their binallay cravings anytime.
Fresh farm fare
Thanks to the province’s vast and fertile fields, farming is the main livelihood of many families in Isabela. And if there’s anything farmers love feasting on, it is the sure-to-satisfy dishes at Kaldingan Ti Mannalon in Brgy. Dagupan, San Mateo, says owner Jerry Barrogan. For years, he has been cooking inbaliktad, pinapaitan, kilawin and ata-ata, all made of goat meat. A must-try is his original fried adobo, which are bone-in cuts of goat boiled in his own adobo blend then fried to a beautiful crisp.
Aside from rice and corn, Isabela is also known for producing tons of monggo or mung beans. In fact, the town of San Mateo has been tagged as the mung bean capital of the country, harvesting close to 1,000 kilos per hectare from its 7,000-hectare farmland. The lowly bean, also known as “black gold” because of its economic potential, has become not just a source of inexpensive nutrition for locals but also a significant means of livelihood for the farmers.
Curacha (spanner crabs) and lobsters abound in the coastal town of Palanan. Locals simply walk to the shore to catch baskets full of this delicious shellfish. In fact, it is said that the townsfolk are willing to exchange a can of sardines for their lobster because they’ve simply grown tired of these delicacies that are much sought after in the city. You won’t usually find them in the market though. Just visit any coastal town and buy directly from the fishermen.
Young Jay “Venus” Castañeda is among the many locals rocking Isabela’s dining scene. Only in his 20s, he beat more senior contestants in the province’s TV culinary competition Master Kusinero. Armed with a set of kitchen skills and lots of ingenuity, he created winning dishes like Isabela’s Treasure, a breaded and fried kangkong and bacon-stuffed fish roulade, and Malonga Isabela, a corn tamale strewn with salted egg, banana and cheese.
While many provinces have their own kind of lechon or roast pig, Isabela’s version makes use of lamb instead of pork. Michael Marcelo from Ilagan marinates his lechon cordero with a signature mix (oyster sauce and red wine, to name a few) and lets it penetrate the meat for six to eight hours before roasting over flaming hot coals. What comes out is succulent and fall-off-the-bone meat that’s definitely savory without the gamey-ness.
Don’t leave Isabela without a taste of Cocoy Ventura’s dishes. After living in the United States for many years, Cocoy returned home to attend to his family’s San Mateo farm as well as offer culinary services in his home province. He creates wonders out of their farm’s harvest, like mango membrillo made with kilos of organic mangoes grown right in their backyard and kalderetang pato using organic ducks also from the family farm. He can cook up a feast using local produce for anyone interested in his inspired food.
When talk comes down to the country’s top dining destinations, we usually mention popular spots like Pampanga, Bacolod and Cebu. But as an archipelago, the Philippines actually has a lot more going for it than just those usual suspects. Isabela is proof of this. This beautiful province brims with cultural history and gastronomic delights, and based on experience, four days of discovering what this vast province has to offer simply doesn’t cut it.
Photographs by Angelo Comsti
This story originally appeared on Food Magazine October-November 2014.