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Noche Buena on the Islands

By Izzy Warren-Gonzalez | Illustrations by Ariana Maralit

Philippine culture is inextricable from Christmas celebrations, perhaps because of the way that the Roman Catholic culture took root on these scattered islands. Much like religion, the celebration of Christmas takes on different forms across various places, with overlapping themes that transcend religion itself and go straight to the core of what makes us all Filipino.

Many would say that one of the focal points of the Filipino Christmas celebration is the Noche Buena table. Noche Buena, which is Spanish for good night, is what most Filipinos call Christmas Eve, and at the center of Noche Buena is invariably the food that people prepare to celebrate the occasion.

Traditional dinners featuring roast pig or lechon are prevalent across the country. It is thought that the idea of lechon as the centerpiece of the meal has been passed down since the 15th century when Caribbean colonists hunted down wild pigs and roasted them to celebrate their Noche Buenas.

This tradition was then carried to other colonies across Latin America, and possibly to the Philippines as well by the galleon trade. The idea of roasting something for the Christmas meal has also evolved across the different provinces. Here are the different provincial dishes you should try out for your Noche Buena.

Goat Head Sinigang from La Union

Goat's head

In La Union, Chef Kalel Chan of the Raintree Group shared that it was not uncommon for an entire goat to be spit-roasted and served in many different ways.

“I grew up in a Chinese-oriented family in La Union, and I remember we always had Chinese and Ilocano dishes on our table. My lolo was full Chinese, and my lola was full Ilocano. We would have a nose-to-tail roasted goat, cooked in so many ways—kilawin, pinapaitan, kaldareta, and goat’s head sinigang, which was usually served the next day,” he says.

On most occasions, the goat’s head was served as pulutan or pica-pica. The recipe for the goat’s head sinigang, however, was a distinct take on an Ilocano treatment of the universal Filipino soup. First, you need a deeply charred goat head, tamarind, tamarind leaf, onions, ginger, water, patis, leeks, and green sili. Combine the tamarind, onions, ginger, water, and goat, then simmer slowly for around three to four hours for a fully grown goat. For a suckling goat, cooking time is usually much shorter. Once the meat has softened, and the soup has taken on a hearty collagen feel, add the tamarind leaf, leeks, patis, and sili to taste.

Carabao Innard Soup from Sagada

Carabao innard

Historically speaking, the area of the Cordillera mountains proved a thorn in the side of the Spanish colonists. For 99 years (from 1566 to 1665), they sent expeditions to the area but were repelled by the rugged terrain and the hostile indigenous population. Formerly called La Montañosa, the Cordillera mountains were bureaucratically subdivided into six political-military command posts. In Sagada, the Spanish were not able to set up a mission until 1882, a mere 16 years before Spain pulled out of the country and gave the Philippines her independence.

Due to this limited exposure to Spanish culture and by extension, Spanish religion, Christmas is not usually the focal point of the holiday season in Sagada. Still, there are plenty of occasions to celebrate with a similar hearty soup made from carabao innards.

“The sabaw is the big thing. For bigger animals like carabao, the thick oil from a bone stock is scooped off the top for people to take a sip of. It’s like liquid energy. Pai-paitan is made from carabao. It is basically the lungs and rumen, all boiled together. Very bitter because of the grass, though,” says Dan, who is a local from Sagada.

This carabao soup is quite common for weddings and house blessings. It is associated with feasting and community, despite not having any religious overtones.

Crispy Kinulob na Itik from Laguna

Kinulob na itik

The rural setting of Laguna plays an integral role in the Christmas traditions celebrated in the province. According to Chef Day, children from the bukid or upland farms would go down to the town proper during the Feast of the Three Kings for the paskuhan, when they go to their host parents’ homes to ask for gifts or money as pamasko.

One of the most underrated local delicacies from Laguna recommended by Chef Day for your Noche Buena table this year is Crispy Kinulob na Itik. You will need one whole itik, or native duck, weighing around one kilogram, five cloves of unpeeled garlic, smashed, two pieces of two-inch ginger, sliced and peeled, one teaspoon of whole peppercorns, two pieces of bay leaves, one cup of soy sauce, three cups of pineapple juice sweetened with sugar, and three cups of water.

Simply combine all ingredients in a pot. Place banana leaves in between the pot and the lid to make sure steam is trapped inside the pot. This cooks the duck as if you are using a pressure cooker, hence the name of the dish, kinulob, which means to cover tightly. Cook until it boils, lower the heat and simmer over low heat until the meat is tender. This usually takes about two to three hours. Remove the duck from the pot and transfer to a rack to drain. Dry for 30 to 60 minutes. Heat oil and fry until crispy, around eight to 12 minutes.

Sinigang Consommé from Palawan

Sinigang Consomme

El Nido, Palawan was originally a small Tagbanua village called Talindak. When Magellan docked in Palawan for provisions, Pigafetta noted that the Tagbanua practiced the ritual of blood compact, cultivated their fields, hunted with blowpipes and thick wooden arrows, valued brass rings and chains, bells, knives, and copper wire for binding fish hooks, raised large and very tame cocks for fighting, and distilled rice wine.

The town was under the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Taytay from 1818 to 1916 when it became Bacuit. In 1954, the town changed names once more to El Nido or “The Nest” after the edible nests of swiftlets or balinsasayaw started becoming a significant source of trade, currently being sold at approximately $3,000 a kilogram to Chinese buyers.

These nests are now a controlled resource, as the little swiftlets work extremely hard twice a month to build these nests, often to the point of hurting themselves to ensure that their young have a place to hatch.

Since El Nido was late to the Spanish party, the influence of Roman Catholic isn’t as strong as in other provinces, similar to the mountainous region. Furthermore, a fascinating diaspora of all sorts of cultures occurred in El Nido, resulting in it being a literal melting pot of various cultures—even more so than Manila.

“Making Christmas dinner for people on the holidays is a different ball game altogether. You need to keep it fresh and exciting, but also incorporate flavors and tastes from home,” says Chef Jose David of Jungle Bar by Piopio.

This Christmas season, Chef David will be offering a new take on the Filipino classic sinigang consommé. Shrimp with cherry tomatoes and micro-herbs served with a tomato-lemon grass consommé is one of the dishes that evokes home while away.

“A lot of people are also veering away from rice and heavier grains, so I make big sandwiches to share for Christmas. Our chicken inasal sandwich is served on ciabatta baked on the island, with lettuce and other vegetables sourced from our farm—and we make the root chips ourselves, too,” he adds.

“Since Jungle Bar is considered a destination by most if not all of our guests, we like serving up things with interesting twists. Our updated kilawin, for example, takes this simple pickled dish one step further with a mango vinaigrette reduction, garnished with deep fried pork floss. Our sisig, which is an after-Christmas meal for a lot of families around the Philippines, is served with a poached egg and puffed rice chips made from native Palawan rice.

“Also, if all you’re looking for in a Christmas meal is something light and refreshing, we have a seared tanigue served with pickled radish and a homemade ponzu sauce. Our food is bright and colorful, like Christmas itself.”

In summation, the culture of the Philippines is so incredibly rich and diverse that it is celebrated differently across each island, each barangay, and each house. Christmas, a global holiday steeped in iconography and tradition, is celebrated differently (or not celebrated at all) across the country. But one thing remains constant—the longing for family and togetherness, the sharing of community values, and the merging of cultures to make one big celebration that is Filipino through and through.

See more at: Manila Bulletin

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