I’m absolutely giddy to be in Bacolod, the Philippines’ Sugar City. As per all my travels, I’m armed with my food research (codigo) and recommendations from DCF readers (thanks so much all, you know who you are!)
The new airport is in Silay City, a quick 20-30 minute drive from Bacolod. Since we’re already here [in Silay], we (my hosts, brothers Mike and Goey) and I make a quick stop at El Ideal, a bakery/landmark whose faÃ§ade appears frozen in the 1920s, which was when it first opened. Characteristic of many more pasalubong shops I’ll encounter on this trip, El Ideal carries a staggering array of native sweets under their own label ”“ caramel boat tarts, empanadas, Negros’ famous piayas, and other confections with mellifluous monikers: baye-baye, butong-butong, etc. I snap a shot of El Ideal’s famous guapple pie but regret that I don’t get to try it.
My first impression of Bacolod is one of progress, with one foot in the urban, the other in the rural. Cars zip past sugarcane plantations on highways lined with trees, and I see the occasional palay being dried in the sun. What is incredulous to me are the mammoth trucks filled to the gills with sugarcane, an arrangement that looks haphazard but is undoubtedly steeped in science and experience. The trucks are on their way to the sugar mills to be processed since it’s almost harvest season. Coconut and rice are also grown in Negros, the latter of which I’ll get up close with later on (in Bacolod Part 2).
On the way to the hotel, our car passes by a truck loaded with some of the largest durian that I’ve seen anywhere. Noticing my wistful stare, Goey, who proves himself my valuable durian-comrade-in-arms, pipes up, “Let’s go see what they have!” Much to the chagrin of Mike, we come back weighed down with eight kilos of the pungent fruit, a veritable steal since each kilo is only P65! Soft and buttery, the fruit practically melts in my mouth and makes marvelous “messes” on my fingers.
I’m told that Aboy’s is a favorite place to take guests to, and this is where we have our first meal. Owned by Nestor “Aboy” Evaristo, the eponymous restaurant inspires manic lip-licking whenever its specialties such as grilled blue marlin, steamed mushrooms, squid all-fat special, and baked scallops are mentioned. Organized like a turo-turo, there’s a glass display of various seafood where diners can pick and choose, or for the ravenous, several chafing dishes hold already-cooked food ready to be scooped and served.
Carrying the native theme all throughout, Aboy’s is done up in wood and stone. There’s an air-conditioned eating area but since it’s totally occupied, we seat ourselves outside where it’s frankly, more windy and not as harried. Service is fast and efficient and before long, we’re digging in.
Most of my readers rightfully insist that I get the grilled blue marlin which is shown here as well as the steamed mushrooms (above). Cooked just ”˜til opaque, each bite of the marlin exudes some of the fish’s natural oils coupled with the tasty smoke from the grill. Wrapped in a banana leaf like the precious package that it is, the oyster mushrooms are redolent with butter, every substantial bite begging for another. Other dishes I try are scallops on the shell glistening in their orange roe and mighty prawns heated just a touch away from translucence.
I lean back in my chair, smiling the smile of the sated, rubbing my now-expanded belly. My hosts and their companions are all Bacolodnons, conversing in their province’s native Ilonggo, a dialect that’s gentle to my ears, somewhat singsong-like. When I express this thought, Mike leans over to me and says something that may have been menacing but could’ve been a lullaby for all I know. When our party sees my non-reaction to whatever it was that was just said, they erupt into laughter. “Lori!” somebody shouts. “Mike just said that he was going to kill you!” Finally understanding, I roll my eyes dramatically and punch Mike in the arm.
I find myself in a branch of Bong Bong’s sometime later. Like El Ideal, it’s bursting with sweets galore, although Bong Bong’s is famous for their thick(er) ube piayas. A piaya is an odd thing, an unleavened bread that reminds me of the crust of a hopia ensconcing its sweet muscovado filling. My piaya preference is for the chewy somewhat thicker versions, which this one from Bong Bong’s is. I’m told it’s better hot and I’m lucky that this store has a griddle from which piayas are scooped off the hot surface into the folds of a brown paper bag.
Visually, there isn’t much difference between Bong Bong’s ube and original piayas. They’re both dark and sweet, fine examples of the sugar that Negros is famed for. I eat my piayas while standing and since there’s nothing to prop them up, I shoot my photos while holding the pastries aloft in one hand. Frankly, it’s easy to plow through a pack of these ”“ thank goodness I only buy two pieces.
”Eat enough chicken to fly away.”
A Bacolodnon tells me that she eats so much chicken inasal she’s surprised that she hasn’t sprouted wings yet. Along with sugar, it’s this particular dish that Bacolod is known for, chicken grilled over smoldering coals sold everywhere from sidewalks to swankier spots. The secret, they say, is in the marinade, ordinary ingredients ”“ vinegar, sugar, calamansi, garlic, soy sauce, vetsin (popularly known as Aji-no-moto), and atchuete oil — combined in exact proportions to render extraordinary results.
It’s also the entire inasal experience that makes it so unforgettable, from the thrill of the grill to the banana leaf-lined wooden plates, to tweaking one’s dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, and calamansi ”˜til it’s just as one wants it. The components of the dipping sauce echo those in the chicken inasal marinade, exemplifying its flavors. It’s at dinner tonight at Chicken Deli, while we’re busy pouring and squeezing in anticipation of the chicken that I learn a funny thing: “If you want toyo, ask for patis. If you want patis, ask for Rufina,” (apparently a popular patis brand of yore). My!
In less than a day that I’ve been in Bacolod, I’ve fallen hard for the sinamak ”“ “… say it like a local, Lori, ”˜see-NAH-mak’”, a vinegar kicked up with additions of finger chilies, garlic, ginger, and sometimes even sibuyas Tagalog (shallots). Depending on how long the mixture’s been aged, the flavor ranges from vapid to volatile. For me, there’s nothing like sinamak’s spicy slap.
As we eat our chicken inasal, I observe how, at a table of seven people, I’m the only one who orders a paa (leg) while everyone else orders pecho (breast). I ask if I’m the only leg lover (“… you all prefer boobs, yes?”) and amidst the resulting hoots, I’m told that more people like paa instead of pecho. Eh? I have yet to find one around this table or among the Bacolodnons that I informally poll during my trip. Anatomy aside, I like the flavor of dark meat better. I’m also fascinated by how some of us are eating with forks and spoons while others are using their hands with gusto. And of course, I keep quiet as those around me extol the virtues of chicken inasal in Bacolod, the likes of which, they say, will never be found in Manila. I happen to think J.T.’s Manukan does a fine job. But then again, I’m not a Bacolodnon.
My full day is beginning to catch up with me but I’m unwilling to spend my first night in sugar land sans dessert. Mike and Goey bring me to Kuppa (pronounced [some say] as KA-pa). One of the newer cafés in Bacolod, this place impresses me with its interiors, coffee paraphernalia, gelato stand, and most of all, their desserts. In my experience, café desserts are far from ideal but Kuppa proves me wrong. The peanut butter chocolate bombe (P85) is a study of two flavors blending harmoniously and is moist inside and out; the baked cheesecake (P85) with strawberry sauce is just plain cream cheese sweetened and bound with eggs and cream, with nary any gelatin to be found.
Since I want to sleep tonight, I settle for some chai tea (P65). We all do.
GoldenFields Commercial Complex
Bacolod City, Negros Occidental
+63 34 435-0760
Various branches in Bacolod
#1 Tindalo corner Hilado Aves.,
Capitol Shopping Center, Bacolod City
+63 34 433.6562