In the search for the bush food of Kalinga.
Tucked in the north-west mountainous slopes of Kalinga province and bordering Abra and Apayao provinces, lies the humble barangay of Balbalasang in the town of Balbalan. A settlement to the Banao tribe. Right in the green heart of Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park and by the riverbanks of Saltan river. After a long drive from Tabuk City, we arrived at the Balbalasang community with a surprised crowd and welcomed by the news that someone from our homestay passed away. We were then advised to proceed to their camping grounds to figure out how we’d go off. The camping area is more of a new community center, with a fairly modern community hall and dorms for local events. But with patchy power supply and non-existing mobile reception. We’re here to check out the bush food of Kalinga so I guess we’d also bushwhack our stay here.
While adoring the mountains, the river and a little chit-chat with the elder cooks, locals offered the perfect cuppa coffee. Though there’s a local coffee variety grown already, but natives had no idea what’s the use of the beans. Until it’s introduced by the Americans. As per the Kalingas, indigenous coffee tastes better than the new ones. (1) And to be brutally honest, I’m already sold with their cuppa, that I wouldn’t mind sleeping on a hammock. But right before twilight, we got our room assignments as the locals, who were staying there for a seminar, gave way for us and would sleep in tents. We all then gathered in the hall for a quick demo of their bush food.
A sticky rice cake made from pounded rice mixed with water, wrapped in “la-u” which is found in the mountain forest, it’s leaves are perfect for this since the mixture doesn’t stick. Alternatively, banana leaves brushed lightly with cooking oil, then steamed. Once cooked, each piece is dipped into ”latik” caramelized coconut cream.
Paku or fiddlehead fern, which wildly grow in mountainous areas like Balbalasang, is a staple side dish. It’s blanched then mixed with chopped tomatoes, onions plus garlic with a hint of bagoong, salty fish/shrimp sauce influenced by the Ilocanos, to taste.
The indigenous dish that probably put the province on the culinary map. It’s known as a spicy local delicacy. Ingredients may vary depending on what’s indigenously available but mainly with onions, garlic, beans, snails/water shells coconut milk, “rabong” bamboo shoots squash, wild mushroom, banana blossoms, local bile juice, and chili.
Chow time, we all shared a sumptuous dinner under the moonlight. Hospitality at its finest, despite a couple of hiccups. Well, travel’s always surprising, let’s just drink the night away. But really I was just there for the drunken stories. After my fellow tourists had a few beers and shots of gin in the dead of night, I felt the chills under my skin, it’s my cue to hit the sack. As per itinerary, we’d hike in the morning. Wait, did somebody do a rain check?
Was awaken by the sound of gushing water, thought someone was taking a bath but at 4 am? Looked out the window and realized it’s raining. Great, this trip’s really full of surprises. I couldn’t sleep anymore, was just staring at the ceiling. After a few, I heard locals talking outside. I decided to check them out. They were already preparing our breakfast though it was still dark. Tried to photograph some of them while dipping the inandila in latik or caramelized coconut cream, one elder then jokingly said it’s called ”mother tongue.” Some laughed with my jerk reaction. My Tagalog centric self was shookt. Something was lost in translation from Ilocano to Tagalog to English. Last time I checked, Mother Tongue is a subject in school. Apparently, they were pertaining to ”dila-dila” (tongue) a sweet flat rice cake of the Tagalog. Could also be of its tongue-like shape. Cuppa coffee and inandila, an early bird’s breakfast. Chill morning was our plan B.
Plan C? Pray to the mountain god, Kabunyan, for a better weather so we could hike. Suddenly, the sky cleared and the sun finally showed itself. Our guide, Wilbur, decided to bring us to a shorter hike than what’s originally planned. Then off we went across the river. That very moment hit me like we were in an episode of Nomad Chef.
Jock Zonfrillo (2), a Scotish born with Italian decent turned Australia’s award-winning chef, embarked on something that hasn’t been done before, bring bush food cooking in the limelight. In every episode, he’d travel to a remote tribe to learn about their culture and culinary ways. Then back in Adelaide, Australia to cook his version of these bush food at his restaurant, Orana. This is pretty much the essence of this trip. As the Department of Tourism-Cordillera then led by Ms. Marie Venus Tan started the Cordillera culinary journey back in 2016. Her successor, Ms. Jovi Ganongan, is all up for it and brought in chefs, some from the academe and media personnel to experience a delish Cordillera.
On the 6th episode of the first season of Nomad Chef, Jock traveled to the Philippines and mingled with the Ayangan tribe in Ifugao. There he fetched snails/water shells in the rice paddies, caught freshwater eel and monitor lizard plus wild herbs to cook just as locals do. Our hosts would also let us experience what they call “sinursuran” an indigenous eel dish which was influenced of the nearby people of Apayao. However, as per tribal custom, hunting is forbidden when there’s death in the community. And by digging more into this, it may also have something to do with what they call ”lapat,” a traditional and indigenous system of protection and conservation of ”u-od” communal watersheds, ”ginufat” forests, ”wangwang” rivers, ”pasto” grazing lands, ”uma” swidden farms within the ”bogis” ancestral territory. A legacy they inherited from their forefathers. Lapat has its ”pagta” laws, one of which states that ”fishing is prohibited during the months of October to March.” (3) Better luck next time.
During our quick hike, it dawned on me why it’s called pine forest. Balbalasang-Balbalan National Park has the most intact pine woods in the region. Not only that, but it also houses rich endemic flora and fauna. (4) Some of which are good bush food. We had sightings of wild berries and what appeared to me as wild passion fruit. Wilbur also mentioned Rafflesia discoveries. In 2010, Rafflesia banaoana, named in honor with the Banao Tribe, (5) was spotted and it’s said to be the sixth species of Rafflesia recorded in Luzon (6) and 10th Rafflesia species identified in the Philippines. (7) No wonder, the park scored 97/100 when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) conducted the Protected Area Suitability Assessment (PASA) this year. (8) Biodiversity at its best.
On our way back to camp, all I wanted was to soak in the cool river. Saltan river is one of the 5 major river systems in the province, namely, Chico, Pasil Tanudan and Calaoan. (9) Apparently, I was not the only one. But we had to ask permission first, and we were granted. Nothing beats submerging one’s tired feet in the refreshing river, I could stay here all day. Some of us even dived right in! Despite our trip hurdles, it’s safe to say we still had fun here.
My take away
When I got the last minute invite for this trip, I dropped everything and just went for it. I knew there’s a lot about Kalinga that’s beyond the ink and it’s pretty evident during our stay in Balbalasang. Long before the word sustainability was correlated with food, the Banao tribe had been practicing it all along. Thanks to their “lapat” system, we’re able to taste a spoonful of their bush food up to this day. And would love to go back to a plate full of more indigenous foods. Plus their tapuey dessert. Yes, it’s roughly 2 days old fermented cooked rice which was surprisingly sweet. Cheers!
Note: My visit was part of a press trip sponsored by the Department of Tourism Cordillera Region. All views and opinions are my own. Received freebies but no money involved.
(1) Lawless R., The dynamics of food and the Kalingas: an account of a people in the north Luzon highlands, Philippines, 2008, Omertaa, Journal for Applied Anthropology
(3) Imong Ji-I-Vanao, Banao ICCA, Kalinga
(5-7) Malabrigo Jr., P., Rafflesia banaoana (Rafflesiaceae): Another new species from Luzon, Philippines, 2010, Asia Life Sciences Supplement 4: 139-146, The Asian International Journal of Life Sciences