I absolutely love empanada (otherwise known as meat pie) – that brown, crispy, sweet crust hiding the hot, smoking, tender meat inside. It's so good that I'm always looking for it wherever I go, whether in a wet market, a mall or in an MRT station.
My girlfriend though used to tell me that I had bad taste for empanada.
Her name's Chemae and she's Ilocano. Ilocanos from the wonderful Ilocos region are known for the tastiest and most well-loved local dishes here in the Philippines. Dishes such as pinakbet (mixed vegetables), kilawin (raw meat soaked in vinegar), pinapaitan (pork or beef tripe in a tasty but bitter soup), igado (pork bits seasoned in soy sauce, fish sauce, with lots of ginger), dinengdeng (a tasty dish of fish and vegetables) and bagnet (deep-fried pork meat) all came from the creative minds and expert tongues of Ilocanos.
But like I said, Chemae had sneered at my empanada addiction before. “Have you eaten Batac Empanada?” she once asked me. “Batac Empanada? What's that? No, I don't know what that is,” I told her. She would then have this face like all the years I've spent eating empanadas were just a waste.
But when I finally tasted this overly hyped Batac Empanada, I did forget my entire empanada history, as long and as colorful as it was.
Manila Empanada vs Batac Empanada
Riverside, Batac, Ilocos Norte: During my visit to my girlfriend's province, she and I, together with our friends, decided to eat in this place lined with numerous food stalls. Ilocanos simply call the long strip “Riverside” since it is situated beside the Quaioit River. Stores sold Ilocano dishes, as well as street foods such as isaw (which locals curiously dip in ketchup rather than vinegar), longganisa, and of course – empanada.
Our friend who often visited the place referred us to the biggest eatery in the place, “Glomy's Empanada.” It sold the famous Batac Empanada for Php 35, longganisang Ilocos (aka “longganisang Vigan”) and a few other Ilocano dishes.
Looking at the cooked empanadas conspicuously arranged in front of the eatery, I immediately saw the difference between the Ilocano product and its Manila counterparts. The covering of Batac Empanada was bright orange, almost like the colored dough Manileņos use for “tokneneng,” another streetfood made from quail eggs. The empanada's dough however, looks more crispy because it has to hold all the mysterious ingredients inside.
Batac Empanada is also a lot bigger than the regular empanadas in Metro Manila. It is more like a shawarma or a closed taco rather than the small meat pies I was used to. It is also thicker, and when I saw how it was cooked it became clear to me why.
First, the cook lays huge amounts of ingredients inside the orange dough: ground pork, longganisang Ilocos, bean sprouts (“toge”), monggo beans, papaya, shredded carrots, and fried egg. The packed dough is then sealed and then fried again. Looking at this process, I understood why our friend only chose to eat one of these orange wonders (I wanted to order two but I changed my mind at the last minute). The thing is so big that one should be enough to fill up the hungry tummy of anyone.
Orange Only Means Awesome
It was instant bliss the moment my teeth punched through that teasing orange shell. The flavor of the pork mixed with the aroma of the vegetables was nothing less than extraordinary. Egg yolk drenched all the ingredients inside, making the filling creamy. But perhaps the real kicker in this fantastic food is the longganisang Ilocos inside.
Longganisang Ilocos is very different from the longganisa people buy everyday in marketplaces in Manila. They are smaller, about half in size, and are not sweet at all. In fact, these tiny things just taste of pure, powerful, unadulterated garlic. If you love that aggressively salty garlic flavor, you'll definitely love longganisang Ilocos – and you'll definitely fall for Batac Empanada. These tiny rolls of meat give the empanada its unique, addictive taste. Vegetables like papaya and carrots tame the flavor, so you don't feel sick of it even if it's insanely tasty.
I couldn't put the thing down even while the egg consistently flowed from the crust's opening. If you're planning on eating one of these treats, make sure you have a plate before you where the egg yolk could drip, and also some napkin. You may also put some ketchup on the empanada to make it sweeter. Chemae told me that Ilocanos are very fond of ketchup, and indeed, I observed they tend to use it in the most creative ways. Vinegar would also go well with the empanada since its flavor fuses well with that of the longganisa. Whatever you add to a single piece of Batac Empanada though, I doubt it will change its flavor that much. The whole thing is a work of pure culinary genius only Ilocanos may be capable of.
When I got back home to Manila, I immediately investigated where I could find the Ilocano empanadas in the city. There are thousands of Ilocanos there. Surely, someone had thought of sharing their precious food with us poor Manileņos? And so I found out that a little sidewalk store sells Batac Empanada at Dapitan St., just behind the University of Sto. Thomas. Unfortunately, I learned that the Manila version of the Batac Empanada wasn't as good, although it was still satisfying. It basically lacked ingredients and was thinner than its original counterparts sold along the Quaioit River.
Whenever my girlfriend and I talk about returning to their province now, it kind of annoys her that I only seem to talk about one thing: their ridiculously yummy empanadas. Well, I can't be blamed for my addiction. After all, she's the one who forced this dirty desire into me. Ah, Ilocanos, they really seriously know what tickles the tongue.