The Pinakbet Farm experience is something you should not miss if you’re in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. I had a good opportunity to taste Ilocos’ local flavor on our medical mission in Vigan. Being the wife of an Ilocano husband, this should not be a big deal. But there’s something about immersing in the locality. And there can be nothing more organic in Ilocos than eating pakbet at the Pinakbet Farm.
What is Pinakbet?
“Pinakbet” or “pakbet” comes from the Ilocano word “pinakebbet”. It means “shrunken” or “wrinkled”. Thus, pinakbet is a dish of vegetables cooked until shrunken. Bitter melon (amapalaya) is the main star of the pinakbet. It could also include eggplants, tomatos, okra, string beans and chili peppers. A good pinakbet uses vegetables easily grown in one’s backyard. The dish is cooked with fermented fish or shrimp paste as it’s seasoning for the sauce. My Kapampangan grandfather included squash (kalabasa) in his pakbet. I always thought kalabasa was a staple ingredient. I found out, tho, that his pakbet was actually the Tagalog version of the dish. The one at the Pinakbet Farm didn’t have it.
Thriftiness is a well-known Ilocano trait. Pinakbet, the Ilocano’s contribution to the culinary world, is the best reflection of the Ilocanos’ frugality. So if an Ilocano can make a dish from all the harvests from his own backyard then he would have spent not a single cent on a meal that was even considered healthy and delicious.
The Pinakbet Farm’s Origins
Situated in Caoayan, Ilocos Sur, the Pinakbet Farm is about 5.0km south of Vigan’s capitol. Featured as a tourist destination, the restaurant prides itself for being one of a kind. How? Their vegetables and fish are sourced from their own acre-wide backyard. Very Ilocano, right?
The Pinakbet Farm was the brainchild of former Caoayan Mayor, Juan Paolo Singson Ancheta. He aimed to help the local farmers and fisherman by boosting their livelihood. So he found a way of promoting their backyard products thru the restaurant.
Moreso, if one was early, he may harvest his own vegetables or catch his own fish in the fish pens on the Meztizo River that runs beside the restaurant. He then could have them cooked as his meal or bring the ingredients home for an affordable price.
The other main feature of the restaurant is their entertainment. Their own cooks and waiters serenade their guests songs and dances. The whole Vigan medical mission troop were completely delighted with the cultural show. Our entertainers enacted a traditional Filipino love story thru song and dance. If the restaurant had foreign guests, they would have a clear concept of how a traditional Filipino love story went. The act included the ‘harana’, the wedding money dance, the honeymoon set in a nipa hut, the everlasting love until one’s hair is grey.
The Pinakbet Farm’s open air structure gives way to the fresh air breeze that creates the atmosphere of eating al fresco style without the harsh sun. This still reflects on the Ilocano’s frugality – no need for pay for expensive air conditioning bills. The nipa and anahaw leaves in the ceiling add to the airiness of the place. This is similar to the ceiling of traditional nipa huts (the native Filipino house).
Upon entering, the hall does not have the usual restaurant table setup. Here you dine with other guests sharing the same long wooden benches that flank the also long tables. They do this to give you a feel of ‘community’, oneness and sharing. A very Filipino trait.
They also set up a stage in front with a live band and a make-shift small house.
The Kamayan Experience
On the side of the restaurant is a line of faucets in an open sink. A convenient way to wash your hands before and after eating. Why the convenient sink? This is because the restaurant doesn’t usually serve you cutleries. You eat your food with your hands – ‘kamayan’ style. To properly perform ‘kamayan’ with one hand, you begin by forming a small amount of rice with some viand on top with your hand. You then scoop that mound with the same hand and push it into your mouth with the back of your thumb.
Majority of Filipinos love eating with their hands. It enhances their appetites. It is a fun way to eat most specially if most people on the table are doing it. Although, kamayan takes a little practice to gracefully execute. It’s a feat nothing a few tries could not accomplish. But if you can’t do it, the waiters would graciously hand you a spoon and fork. At least you tried. 🙂
The Pinakbet Feast Setup
I will admit, unlike my husband, I am not a voracious pakbet eater. I am more of a chop suey kind of girl. Pakbet, I do not usually crave for. But I will have it, most specially with squash – the way my Lolo makes it. Plus, it goes well with grilled fish or pork chop. But for a restaurant to bear the name of the famous dish, I have to give their pakbet a try.
The restaurant serves you plates using miniature rice winnowers (bilao) covered with banana leaves. The first one served is the star of the feast – the pakbet. It is served inside a hallow bamboo stalk about 3 feet long for sharing among the customers close to you at the table. (This was before Covid). The chicharon topping was a welcome crunchiness to each mouthful.
A few waiters then went around the floor serving you additional dish on your plate. One waiter went around serving a cup of rice on every guest’s plate. Another waiter took care of serving the grilled tilapia. The next one came in with a big aluminum container of grilled slices of pork chop. They also served you unlimited iced tea in mason jars.
Extra Rice, Please
And then, there we were. Everyone was enjoying the burst of delectable flavor that is both heavenly and so authentic. You can actually savor the distinctive and unique quality of each vegetable. The usual bitterness of the ampalaya (bitter gourd) was so minimal it didn’t even matter. The eggplants, atlho mild tasting in general, absorbed the light saltiness of the pakbet sauce which made it so yummy. The string beans were crunchy and cooked just right.
Talk about fresh tilapia – being a voracious pescatarian, the grilled fish tasted sweet and its meat firm but tender. The grilled slices of pork grilled have the right amount of salt and pepper – the way I always enjoyed it.
Apo Langit will surely be delighted to feast with us. And if you’re familiar with Filipino food habits – extra cup of rice was a major request!
That Filipino Pinakbet Experience
Places like The Pinakbet Farm is one of the reasons the Philippines will be a memorable experience to anyone visiting my country. The authenticity of the atmosphere catering to a bit of nostalgia of how the Filipinos were, and still is. A people of hospitality, resourcefulness, a big sense of community, talent and graciousness. And I say this not just of the Ilokanos. The whole country is like that. We’re generally warm, friendly and festive. And this 5-star encounter is very evident when you dine at The Pinakbet Farm.
Until the next time, my lovies!
The once named “godmother of the Philippine Blogosphere”, Gigi Manaloto-Refugia, known by her pen name “Ate Sienna” has been blogging since 2002 in her old pansitan.net community where she housed famous bloggers. She now writes about being 50-something and shares her tips on fashion, makeup, skincare, travel, food and thrift-store diving.
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