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A Walk Through History With the Ilocos Empanada

When visiting the Ilocos region, 500 kilometers north of Manila, the Philippines’ capital, you cannot help but notice these large hand-held orange pastries being sold along the streets of Ilocos Sur and Ilocos Norte. This “pastry” is called Ilocos empanada, one of the region’s most popular snacks, and one of the many icons from which the region has long been known.

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Empanadas from Ilocos Norte with their signature orange rice flour base

You will also quickly notice that there is a slight difference between the empanadas sold in Ilocos Sur (south) and Ilocos Norte (north). The reason for this may be the availability of resources in both districts. Ilocos Norte has a sizeable source for the achuete (atsuete/ annatto), extracted from the seed of the achiote tree (scientific name: Bixa orellana). Ilocos Sur, however, does not have much access to this natural resource.

Reflecting the colonial past

The Ilocos empanada reflects history itself, since it is inspired by the Spanish empanada. Empanada is a typical snack that originated from Spain and its former Latin American colonies. An empanada is made with wheat flour and stuffed with meat, carrots, corn, cheese, and/or peppers. There’s a lot of variation with the stuffings, depending on the ingredients available in the area.

Taking the empanada as Ilocos’ own

As is often the case with any cultural exchange, the Spanish empanada has been modified to fit the local area’s culture and traditions. Since rice, longanisa (ground pork and molded into sausage links), papaya, mung beans, and eggs are abundant in Ilocos, these ingredients are used for the local empanada. And since baking is not a traditional way of cooking in Ilocos, the empanadas are deep-fried rather than baked.

Making the Ilocos empanada is both an art and science, with many attesting to how difficult it is to make. It is such a sight to behold to see the Ilocos empanada artisans creating each empanada by hand, and producing every piece into precision.

The Ilocos empanada is indeed a jewel of the region. The making of an empanada is a craft on its own that must be passed from generation to generation to stay alive. When visiting Ilocos, be sure to give the empanada a try. And don’t forget to say “Dios ti agngina” (“Thank you” in the Ilokano language) to the manang (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing an old lady), manong (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing an old man), or ading (a respectful Ilokano way of addressing someone of the same age bracket) who made the empanada for you.

Where to try the Ilocos empanada 

The best places to try the Ilocos empanada are in Dap-ayan in Laoag, Ilocos Norte; Food Hall along Batac River, Ilocos Norte; and the Heritage District in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. Dap-ayan is open 24 hours, 7 days a week; while for Batac and Vigan, it’s open every day up to 10 PM, depending on the stall.

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Market Find: Ar-arosep/ Seaweed/ Sea Grape/ Green Caviar

This article is part of a regional reporting project in partnership with GoUNESCO, a UNESCO New Delhi initiative.

The Philippines has one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world and its marine life is no exception.

One interesting find in Philippine markets in the Ilocos region is “Ar-arosep,” a local term for seaweed, sea grape, and green caviar.

Only seasonally available in high-end restaurants overseas, the Philippines is lucky yet again to be gifted with Ar-arosep that is best known to treat thyroid disorders. That is an advice taken from local elders who have precious wisdom passed down from generations.

Water pollution is the major threat to the increasing fall of Ar-arosep.

If you pass by Ilokano markets, be sure to look for this navy green, bush-like presence. It’s best enjoyed fresh with sliced Ilokano tomatoes (tiny but very sweet).

Why I love it: ar-arosep represents one of the few unspoilt beauties still available in the Philippines. It serves as a reminder that in the midst of commercial fishing and industrialization, there lies survivors that find their way into local markets.

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Ar-arosep: one of the many overlooked Philippine market finds

As with any cultural element in the world: do not quickly assume. Make sense of the why behind the what first and while you’re at it, get lost and find yourself. Happy travels! 🙂

P.S. The keys to sustainable travels are universal: take public transportation | stay in accommodations where cooking is allowed (private or shared, it doesn’t matter) | walk as much as you can | wake up early | stay away from guidebooks | immerse yourself in local language, culture and history | visit local cafés | know that the possibilities are endless | listen to your gut ❤