“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home,” James Michener
Cagayan Valley is composed of five (5) provinces namely: Batanes, Cagayan, Isabela, Nueva Vizcaya and Quirino. It lies in a larger valley in northeastern Luzon, between the Cordilleras and the Sierra Mountain Ranges.
I’ve traveled this road countless times and for good reasons. Besides serving as a jump off point to activities such as whitewater rafting and kayaking, Cagayan Valley’s allure includes beautiful mountain ranges that never failed to blow me away, unspoiled caves (except for Callao, of course) that begs to be explored, breathtaking sceneries along pristine rivers, historical churches, and good friends forged through the years. Another important reason why I keep coming back is the food and here’s why.
The rugged mountain ranges greet you once you hit Nueva Vizcaya, also called the gateway to Cagayan Valley. I’ve always looked forward to this part of the drive precisely because of the stunning mountains ranges of the Sierra Madre, the Caraballo and the Cordilleras that surrounds this province. Truth be told, given that there are a lot to explore, I’ve never really set foot here except to pick up some gorgeous citrus fruits along the highway at Busilac, Bayombong– whatever is the sweetest and in season.
The province has become known for its citrus fruits and oranges, which is available all year round. Open even at the wee hours of the evening for the night travelers, the row of fruits stand at Busilac sells different varieties of oranges, which includes Perante, Valencia, Clementine, Satsuma, Pongkan, Washington Navel. Other citrus fruits like Pomelo are also available when in season. A bit on the tart side and not as sweet as the Davao variety, this yellowish variety is refreshingly juicy and best with salads and made as juice.
As you journey on, stop at Ilagan, Isabela (about 120 km from Nueva Vizcaya) for some really good suman (rice cake) called Inatata.
Wrapped in banana leaves as most sumans are but distinctly bundled in 10s. But what makes this adorable mini suman a cut above the rest lies not in the packaging but in the product itself.
Made of glutinous rice, sugar, butter and coconut milk, somewhat like Biko but smoother and creamier in texture. I must warn you, these little babies are so good, it’s hard to stop. A bundle goes so quickly and before you know it, you’re so stuffed.
Once you reach the town proper of Ilagan, you’ll find a nipa hut (or is it a bamboo?) stall somewhere around the rotunda that sells Inatata for P25 a bundle. Get a few bundles and a few more for good measure, then go across to a Jollibee to get yourself some coffee to go with the it. You’ll thank me for it.
Make sure to save some for the road or for dessert after a plate of Pancit Cabagan at Cabagan, Isabela. They say Feli-Cita’s serves the best in Cabagan. This pancit has become the benchmark of all pancits for me. Nothing so far is better than Pancit Cabagan, a medley of stir-fried fresh noodles, julienned cabbage and carrots, boiled quail eggs, and a generous heap of lechon de carajay. Eaten with fresh onions, local soy sauce and calamansi… heaven. What makes this so heavenly are the fresh al dente noodles – an apparent secret that may be hard to replicate.
I always have mine not in Cabagan but in Natan’s. A small outdoor restaurant just outside the Tuguegarao Airport. This simple pleasure I can have without having to do a road trip actually. I often look forward to trips to the airport (whether arriving or departing) for I can have my fix of Pancit Cabagan at Natan’s. Pancit Cabagan and Coke… need I say more?
Speaking of Tuguegarao – my base when I’m in the region and the gateway to Peñablanca where the Pinacanauan River flows.
It is one of my favorite rivers where just hanging out along the riverbanks for a barbecue lunch and some kayaking is enough to make me happy. Kayaking aside, it is also home to the circadian flights of fruit bats – a must-see spectacle when in the area.
Longganisa served at Casa Carag
When in Tuguegarao, I make it a point to bring home packs of Tuguegarao Longganisa for my stash and to give as gifts. I’ve never met anyone who’ve tried this garlicky sausage and not love it.
Another must have when I’m in Tuguegarao is their Tsokolate. Four tableas (tablets) to a cup makes a perfect native chocolate drink – just thick enough with the right amount of sweetness. Tsokolate, longganisa, eggs and garlic fried rice = a power breakfast courtesy of Tuguegarao.
About 65km further north on your way to Sta. Ana perhaps, is the town of Lal-lo. Although it is recognized in history as once being the seat of the Diocese until it was transferred to Vigan in Ilocos Sur a long time ago, I know it as a town that makes the best milk candy I have ever tasted.
Better than the more popular Alcala milk candy, I swear. Both made of carabao’s milk but somehow, the one from Lal-lo is softer and creamier with seemingly more milk. Both are not too sweet but the Lal-lo specialty wins hands down. The thing is, you won’t find it at the Tuguegarao airport where the Alcala milk candy abound.
So if you find yourself in Lal-lo by any chance, look for this sign along the road. I promise it is worth the stop.
Once you reach Sta. Ana, head straight to the market for some fat, sweet crabs, lobster and the freshest fish.
Known as a game fishing mecca, the rich fishing grounds yield lobsters, octopus, yellow fin tuna, blue marlin and many more. Freshwater fish, crabs and shrimps likewise abound in inland fishing grounds.
Best is to buy them at the market and have it cooked in a restaurant nearby for a fee. We had ours cooked by JnJ Seafood restaurant along the Highway.
I’ll leave you with this for now but let this be a Part 1 as I document more good eats from this region. A region still underrated and unnoticed in the tourism realm. Its people, its natural wonders and its food keeps me coming back for more.