Filipino Food: What Are Ilocos Empanadas?
Growing up in the capital of Manila meant that to me, Ilocos empanadas were not comfort food. Although, upon trying it for the first time in a stall along Katipunan Avenue, the attraction was instant. What I initially thought would be exotic turned out to be oddly comforting in its familiarity. It possessed the satisfying crispiness of a well-fried lumpia. That meaty filling balanced by fresh, thinly-sliced vegetables reminded me of a properly-constructed sandwich. Just like grilled meats and seafood doused in spiced vinegar—in this case, a dark, port-like sukang Iloko—it induces your mouth to water, magnifying the flavours. Since then, I have been truly hooked.
It was during my more recent travels to Northern Luzon when I learned more about my now-favourite Filipino snack. Historically, the empanada was brought to the Ilocos province by Spaniards and its former Latin American colonies during their occupation. A Spanish empanada, on the other hand, is made out of a wheat flour crust and stuffed with a filling of meat, vegetables, cheese, or sauce. The basic Ilocos empanada has a rice or galapong wrapper stuffed with shredded green papaya. Other fillings such as longganisa and egg are more recent innovations to showcase the flavours of the region. And, since baking is a Western import and not a method of cooking indigenous to the islands, the empanadas of Ilocos are deep-fried in oil.
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I have always wondered why the Ilocos empanada is not as prolific as, say, shawarma—something one sees in almost every street corner or food court—when its flavours, relatability, and price-point make it such a marketable product.
The answer lies in its preparation. Irene Santos of the famous Irene’s Empanada in Vigan once explained the hidden complexities of making the seemingly simple street-side snack.
It begins in the wee hours of the morning when she prepares the rice wrapper, something that needs to be concocted fresh every day, never frozen. "Madaling mapanis (it spoils easily)," I remember her saying. These are fashioned into balls and rolled out until they are thin yet not to the point that they will break when stuffed and immersed in the hot oil. It is a dying art, something deemed too tedious and fussy for what is considered street food. Irene only decided to open a branch in Pasig because her daughter agreed to manage it, and she admitted that she would not have entrusted it with anybody else.
There are two kinds of Ilocos empanada: Batac (or Laoag) and Vigan. The differences are superficial and minute.
The wrapper of the Batac one has an orange tinge from atsuete (a natural food colouring from the seeds of the achiote tree) while the empanada from Vigan has retained its natural colour. The former has a slightly thicker wrapper making its shell a tad harder than that of the latter upon frying. Batac contains both mung bean sprouts and green papaya; Vigan only uses green papaya, except for a few establishments that mix in cabbage. The fillings reflect the ingredients readily available, such as the local longganisa.
Batac utilises the whole egg, while Vigan only stuffs theirs with the yolk. Legend has it that the egg whites are mixed into the mortar used for building their churches.
After folding and cutting the wrapper into a half-moon, the empanadas are immersed in hot oil until the filling is cooked through and the wrapper bubbling and crisp.
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After cooling on a rack for a few minutes, eating may commence, but not without a few indispensable rituals. I would bite off a corner releasing the steam from the freshly-fried empanada, then through this hole, I would drizzle some spiced vinegar. A couple of eating tips from Ilocanos I have picked up is the addition of raw onions and salt to the vinegar or mixing it with some sweet banana ketchup. Sometimes I alternate those two when the condiments are available, but I really am a bit of a purist when it comes to Ilocos empanada.
With food delivery changing our current eating habits, enjoying Ilocos empanada from Irene’s or Fariñas is something we can do with new-found regularity. Still, nothing beats that first time biting into a piping-hot empanada in that Katipunan stall or escaping the heat of Calle Salcedo in Vigan to feast on a couple of specials (an empanada with green papaya, longganisa, and egg) at Irene’s shack with a bottle of RC Cola. Until I can enjoy my empanadas in their natural environment, I will take what I can.
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