How to cook: Pinakbet, an Ilocano pork and vegetable stew with shrimp paste

If you ask the average Filipino what Ilocano cooking is all about, he’ll likely say, “Bagnet, empanada and pinakbet.” Of course, Ilocano cooking is much, much more than those three dishes. But bagnet, Ilocano empanada and pinakbet are sort of iconic and they are loved by Ilocanos and non-Ilocanos alike.

What is pinakbet? It is a a pork and vegetable stew with shrimp paste. There are as many recipes as there are cooks, some Ilocanos claim that only the Tagalog version of the dish includes squash, others say otherwise because, like most regional dishes with peasant origin, pinakbet is really about cooking with whatever ingredients are on hand. Therefore, although there are vegetables that are considered traditional for cooking pinakbet — like ampalaya (bitter gourd), malunggay pods and okra — it is not the presence of all traditional pinakbet vegetables in the dish that makes it pinakbet. Rather, it is about how it is cooked and how it tastes.

I say all that because Filipinos can be ridiculously regionalistic when it comes to food. And many Filipinos judge the authenticity of a dish not so much by cultural or historical standards but by the way their mothers and grandmothers cooked them to the point that they will insist that a recipe is wrong unless it is exactly the same as their mothers’ and grandmothers’. There are even some who say that unless you’re a true-blue Ilocano, you can’t cook Ilocano dishes properly.¬†Filial love and regional loyalty are nice but, you know, cooking just doesn’t work that way.

And just how should pinakbet taste? It’s a bit complex, truth be told, because aside from the seasonings, the vegetables all have distinct flavors and all the flavors meld together as they simmer away with the pork. In simplistic terms, pinakbet is salty (a distinctive kind of saltiness because of the shrimp paste), a little sweet and a little spicy. »