A journey into Albay’s culinary heart

Monica de Leon goes on a five-day food tour of Albay and reveals the best food stops, from Camalig for a special "pinangat" dish to Guinobatan for garlic sausages

Photos by Ferdz Decena

View of Mt. Mayon from Legazpi Boulevard

Albay, one of six provinces that make up the Bicol region in the southeastern peninsula of Luzon, is known for two things: its perfect cone-shaped Mayon volcano and its local cuisine.

 Although Albay could not lay claim to having come up with the adobo dish, which singularly put the Filipino cuisine on the culinary map, it could lay claim to concocting some of the most aromatic and delicious dishes to rival that of neighboring culinary giant, Thailand, which has its own armory of spicy coconut-based meals.

Some of the best meals in Albay are cooked over wood fire
Our five-day travel in Albay allowed us to sample some of the province's signature dishes. We'll share with you some of the best food stops, from Camalig for its pinangat, to Guinobatan for its local sausages, to Jovellar for rice cakes cooked with coconut milk and hot chocolate using local cacao. And finally, to Polangui for the local truffle pasta.

 Organized culinary tours are now available to book in Albay, introducing you to the region’s cuisine, restaurants, food outlets, and culinary history.

Bicol's signature dish: pinangat, a concoction made of taro leaves, spices and coconut milk
Bicol’s signature dishes include pinangat, shredded gabi or taro leaves cooked in coconut milk with meat and spices; tinutungang manok or chicken cooked in burnt coconut milk; and laing, also a gabi leaf dish. A similarly loved dish is the kinunot, flaked meat cooked in coconut milk with spices and moringa leaves. Traditional kinunot used sting ray meat, but these days this is frowned upon. Chicken is used instead.

Day 1
Our first day was spent mostly on the road for a straight 12 hours. From the passenger seat, the tedious journey was made bearable by the rolling vistas of coconut plantations, green rice fields, mountains, expansive coasts, provincial towns, some bustling, some sleepy.

 From Makati, we drove past the exit in Calamba Laguna, to the towns of San Pablo, Atimonan, and Gumaca in Quezon province, on the way to our destination, Albay in the Bicol region. On the way to Atimonan, Quezon, we took the Quezon National Forest Park route for a 10-minute cut-through across the Sierra Madre mountain ranges, negotiating the notorious zigzag roads, with mountains on one side and deep ravine on the other.

In Gumaca, Quezon, we stopped for lunch at Lita’s Eatery on AH26. We ordered the house specialty, cocido, yellowfin tuna and vegetables cooked in mildly sour soup made from water used to wash hulled rice; fish in coconut milk, grilled squid and deep-fried shrimp patties. The seafood were all fresh catch of the day from the waters of Gumaca. Our bill came to P600, about US $14, not bad at all for four people.

 Then it’s back on the road again, crossing Andaya Highway and a couple more towns in Camarines Sur, and on to Naga City. An hour later we catch sight of the perfect cone-shaped Mayon Volcano, shoulder to shoulder with its sister mountains, drenched in the pink light of dusk, the rice paddies creating their mirror images. We have arrived.

One of the best spots for viewing and photographing Mt. Mayon unobstructed is from Legazpi Boulevard in Puro, Legazpi City. Time your visit at dawn for the best light. Legazpi Boulevard is an eight-minute ride by jeep or tricycle (a motorcycle with a sidecar) from Old Albay. The fare is P8 per person for the jeep and for the tricycle, P8 per person for a group of four.

Day 2
In search of Bicol’s pinangat dish

Bicolanos are crazy about their pinangat, a dish made of shredded gabi (taro) leaves, ginger, lemongrass, fish or meat, and chilies cooked in coconut milk in traditional clay pots over wood fire. Locals can’t tell us the origins of pinangat, but the abundance of big gabi leaves and coconuts says something. The best gabi variety can be found in certain areas midway to the tip of Mt. Mayon where the soil is rich in minerals and gets enough water.

Traditional pinangat cooking at Zeny's, done over woodfire
In search of the best pinangat, we drive to Camalig town, close to central Albay. There’s a concentration of pinangat stores along Maharlika Highway but we drove past that to Zeny’s Pinangat (+63916 288 5491), reputed to be the best, and lately, a “pilgrimage” site for foodies and Manila’s top chefs.

Owner Zeny Nocedo gets her gabi leaves from the neighboring town of Guinobatan. Her pinangat is so popular that her days are often already booked with pre-orders, with Zeny’s averaging about 100 to 200 pre-ordered dishes a day.

 On our visit, we ordered 25 pinangat, including five from a friend in Manila who made sure I did not forget her share. 

Pinangat is aromatic and delicate-tasting, an effect of the melding of crushed taro leaves, spices, meat or seafood and cooked coconut milk. It’s melt-in-your-mouth tender and appears creamy, sometimes served with a sprinkling of coagulated cooked coconut milk on top. Nocedo says Bicolanos adore this dish because of its unique taste and the fact that it’s healthy. She attributes the popularity of her pinangat to its overall balance of flavors and the use of the best ingredients. 

Order regular pinangat for P35, or special for P50, the latter with more generous ingredients, and let Zeny’s know if you prefer hot or mild. Frozen pinangat has a six-month shelf life. Just thaw thoroughly before steam-heating.

Suanoy dining on a floating raft

Forget city dining cruises. Why not book your own special table on a floating raft? One of the best ways to enjoy Albay’s suanoy cooking — suanoy meaning traditional cooking –is on a bamboo raft, where your food is cooked and served while you cruise along the nine-hectare lake, with the majestic Mt. Mayon in the backdrop.

Cooking tinutungang manok (chicken cooked in burnt coconut cream) on Sumlang Lake with Mt. Mayon as backdrop
Sumlang village in Camalig is at the forefront of a movement dedicated to keeping traditional Bicolano cooking alive through a series of weekend tours.

 The plan is to build a floating kitchen on Sumlang Lake and invite local food establishments and chefs to take turns cooking local fare on weekends. The menu will be a mix of traditional and modern Bicolano cuisine.

 The raft will be fitted with furniture by local designer and Sumlang village captain Felipe Napa.

Tinutungang manok or chicken cooked in burnt coconut cream, available at 1st Colonial Grill
On our visit, 1st Colonial Grill hosted our meal on the floating raft. The chef cooked a local specialty, the tinutungang manok, or chicken stewed in coconut milk. The chef burnt the coconut meat, then extracted the coconut milk which he used as sauce for simmering the sautéed chicken, spices and saba banana.

 I thought the food tasted great. The smokiness and mild spiciness of the coconut milk gave off an exotic taste. The chef explained every step of the cooking process. The food and the unbeatable setting made this quite a memorable meal. 

One of 1st Colonial Grill’s branches in Sagpon in Daraga serves good smoked fish rice with lechon kawali or crisp-fried pork belly and crispy spring rolls. And for good old Bicolano fare, try the laing, dried taro leaves cooked in coconut cream and shrimp cake, and fusion Bicolano dishes like the pasta Bicolana, spaghetti topped with Guinobatan longganisa and parmesan cheese, a must try. The bahay kubo (thatched hut) salad, which consists of vegetables mentioned in the local song Bahay Kubo is served by attendants while singing Bahay Kubo.

Sili (chilli) ice cream, also available at 1st Colonial Grill
And don’t leave the restaurant without trying its homemade local ice cream. My favorites are tinutong (burnt) ice cream, which has a nuant smoky taste; salabat (ginger ale) ice cream; and the sili (chili) ice cream, available in three different hotness ranges. You can order a la carte or buy by the pint or half gallon. 

Camalig is a 15- to 20-minute ride from Old Albay, Legazpi City (P15 fare).

Local sausages and rice cake

Local pork sausages of Guinobatan
For longganisa or local pork sausage head to the town of Guinobatan in western Albay where Rolly Magdacoc makes garlicky and tangy sausages under the brand name Tiya Be Nate (Tel +63919 439 4498), done to a recipe handed down to his aunt by his grandmother and now entrusted to him and his aunt. Philippine senator Chiz Escudero who hails from Sorsogon is a big fan of the Tiya Be Nate sausages.

 The sausage ingredients are simple — ground pork, salt, lots of pepper, soy, sugar, anisado white wine, Prague powder, lots of garlic — but the portioning is a trade secret. The result is a tasty garlicky longganisa, peppery hot with a hint of sweetness to it.

A showcase of longganisa (local pork sausage) making by Tiya Be Nate's nephew
Tiya Be Nate makes 3,000 sausages daily, all pre-ordered. Order at least a day ahead. It costs P3 a piece for regular sausage and P5 for special lean sausage Tiya Be Nate has a stall at the Guinobatan Public Market from where you can pick up your order. 

Guinobatan is a 30- to 45-minute ride from Old Albay, from where you can take a jeep. The fare is P25.

Rice puto making in Ligao
Another culinary stop is Alda’s House of Macapuno for a taste of Ligao’s rice puto or local rice cake, a mix of pounded rice and glutinous rice put in halved coconut husks, then filled with locally made macapuno or freak coconut, cooked over wood fire and typically used in desserts. Ligao is coconut country and has an abundance of the produce for its delicious grainy rice cake, best served right after cooking.

Alda’s House of Macapuno along Maharlika Highway is one of the best makers of rice puto in Ligao. Rice puto sells at P25 a pair. Ligao is just a little off Guinobatan, to its west.

Day 3
Free range chicken and pig, glutinous rice and exotic fruit

Jovellar in southwest Albay is off-the-beaten track, but well worth a visit. Register at the visitor center in Quipia village (P10 registration fee) and for a minimal fee, request for a sampling of the local fare. 

Jovellar is known for its native free range chicken and pig and supplies livestock to neighboring towns. Order chicken kinunot, cooked on the spot. Kinunot means “flaked”. The native chicken is grilled to give it its smoky flavor, then its meat is flaked and cooked in coconut milk along with onion, garlic, chili, ginger and lemongrass, and topped with a generous amount of malunggay (moringa). Best served with steamed rice. In the past, the kinunot dish used sting ray or shark meat but this is no longer allowed. Native chicken used in cooking is tastier than commercial chicken.

 You can buy live chicken for P95 per kilo here, and live pig at P180 per kilo. Butchering of the chicken is free, while it costs P150 for the pig. You can also buy freshly slaughtered meat from the town market.

Binut-ong, lovely rice cake from Jovellar
Taste and fall in love with the binut-ong, a local rice cake of glutinous rice cooked with coconut milk and wrapped in banana leaf. It’s creamy and salty at once and quite rich oozing with coconut milk. The saltiness of the binut-ong gets pleasantly diluted once you pour hot tsokolate (chocolate) over it, the way locals like to eat it. The tsokolate is cooked using homegrown cacao and served thick, combined with coconut milk.

And finally, try the exotic fruit, balig-ang, red- and deep purple-hued clusters of fruit that look like the purple oval duhat. It’s pungent and quite sour when raw but turns sweet when mature.

 Eat it the way locals do: put the fruit in a jar, sprinkle with salt, vigorously shake the jar until the fruit cracks, and eat it.

From the Guinobatan town center, take a 30- to 45-minute jeepney ride to Jovellar town proper, from where you can hire a habal-habal (local motorcycles) to take you to the inner town of 

Jovellar (P10 per person. You may have to haggle). Jeepney ride from Guinobatan to Jovellar costs P50 per person.

Dinuguan, Polangui’s sugar, and Bicol’s “truffle” pasta

Visit Polanggui in western Albay. Book ahead and drive up to Sarilla’s Muscovado Milling Facility (Tel +63946 304 4955) to see how they turn sugar cane into molasses; and cook the molasses to turn it into muscovado sugar and kalamay, commonly known as panutsa or hardened caramelized sugar used as sweetener, a healthier alternative to polished white sugar, or even as candy nibs for instant dessert.

 You can buy kalamay for P25 a pair; while the muscovado sugar is at P35 for a 500g pack.

Pancit bato topped with dinuguan or prok blood stew. Try it at Benzon's Burger House in Polangui
At the town center of Polangui, stop by Benzon’s Burger House in Polangui for the best dinuguan in town. Dinuguan is blood stew, done the Bicolano way by Chef

 Benzon Liao. The pork innards are cooked in pig’s blood, bought fresh daily from a local supplier, then mixed with coconut milk. The dinuguan is creamy, thanks to the coconut milk, with a slight hint of sourness. Albaynons eat dinuguan with pancit bato, a saucy local noodle dish, instead of the usual steamed rice.

Go to Ayanna’s Grille, a short walk from Benzon’s Burger House, owned and operated by mother and son tandem, Corazon and Benzon Liao, for traditional home cooked Bicolano fare and fusion Bicolano dishes. Everything I’ve tried tasted even better than they looked — laing with santol (cottonfruit) or taro leaves and santol meat cooked in coconut milk and spices; ukoy sa tabios  tabios is the smallest commercially harvested fish in the world, caught from Lake Danao, a crater lake on top of Mt. Masaraga, about 15km from the main town center of Polangui — or deep-fried tabios fish patty, best eaten dipped in spiced vinegar; kinilaw na tabios sa kamias at gata or tabios ceviche; and for dessert, creamy ice cream with gata and chili. Order a refreshing glass of pandan (screw pine) iced tea.

Kurakding or local truffle pasta available at Lila, also in Polangui
Chef Benzon has created a new menu at the more upscale, newly opened Lila restaurant. One is the tasty, fall-of-the-bone tender roast pork, and the pili nut muscovado ice cream. Be sure to try the kurakding pasta, the local, subtler version of truffle pasta. Kurakding is an edible mushroom that grows in Ligao, a neighboring city.

Polangui is about an hour’s drive from the grand central terminal in Legazpi where there are van’s that ply the route. Fare is about P60 per person. From Old Albay, take a jeep to the terminal. Fare is P40 to P50 per person.

Day 4
Dried fish with smoked fish rice and local desserts

Drive up to Taysan Hill in Sto. Nino village, Legazpi City to The Oriental Legazpi hotel with a view of Mt. Mayon. The hotel's Jasmine restaurant serves typical Bicolano buffet fare and the best roast coffee in town.

 Order dried fish from Daet and eat it with tinapa fried rice. Tinapa is smoked fish. Filipinos are heavy breakfast eaters and a fish dish to start the day is not unusual. The buffet includes several rice cake varieties and homemade soya bean curd or taho.

 

For dinner there is a selection of traditional Bicol fare and fusion fare like Bicol Express sa Oas, a dish of chicken meat cooked in spices and coconut milk; yellowfin tuna with cream pinangat; and kinunot (flaked fish) lasagna. Seafood served come from Sorsogon, a province located southeast of Albay.

Local dishes to try from the a la carte menu are ginataang alimusan or catfish in coconut milk, balukong Florentine or scallops from Sorsogon — some of the scallops still have aligue (seafood fat) in them — topped with creamy spinach Florentine sauce — and kinunot cannelloni or flaked sting ray meat cooked with cannelloni pasta.

Buffet breakfast costs P300 for adults and P199 for children six to 12 years. A la carte dishes are generous and good for sharing. A full course meal for two is anywhere from P1,200 to P2,000. To get to the hotel, take a jeep or trycicle from Old Albay to Taysan Hill.

DJC halo-halo
Drive up to northeastern Albay to DJC Halo Halo & Snack Inn to try Bicol’s best halo-halo, made using homemade ingredients. Halo-halo, literally meaning mix-mix, is a concoction of runny leche flan, purple yam, cheese, sweetened saba banana, jelly, shaved ice cream and milk, served in an ice cream tumbler. No sugar is added.

DJC also serves affordable lunch meals. Try the tuna cooked in coconut milk, spices and vegetables. Stop by the Tiwi public market to buy tuna, which costs anywhere from P120 to P180 per kilo. Tuna in Tiwi is at its cheapest during the summer season.

Baduya or maruya, deep-fried coated saba banana, is a staple snack for Albaynon locals. Best to buy this from Angie’s Baduya in Doña Maria Subdivision in Daraga whose version is the favorite of the late travel journalist Susan Calo-Medina. Angie dips the sliced banana in a special batter; puts the dipped bananas on cacao leaves for added flavor; and fries it. The baduya is fried to perfection — slightly crusty outside; the banana flesh all sweet and tender.

 Angie’s also sells other native snacks like bayokbok, a snack of ground cassava, glutinous rice, coconut and milk turned into balls and dipped in special flour; banana cue, camote cue (deep-friend banana and sweet potato with caramelized sugar), and pancit bato (local noodle dish).

For local pastries, stop by Balay Cena Una, a two-storey, old aristocratic Filipino-inspired house-cumrestaurant, whose kitchen is headed by Chef Connie Condeno who worked at Dusit Thani Manila’s kitchen for over 30 years. Recommended are its pili opera cake, much like sans rival but with dark chocolate and pili nuts in it; and sweet potato cheesecake. The homemade ube halaya with langka sauce, rich, creamy, buttery homemade yam with some tiny nibs and jackfruit puree for sauce, is a tad sweet but good.

The restaurant also serves local Bicolano fare in addition to the usual international cuisine.

Balay Cena Una is in Brgy. Bagumbayan, Daraga, Albay, the town next to Legazpi City. From Old Albay, take a Daraga bound jeep to get there.

Day 5

No lazy morning to say goodbye to Albay as I wake up at dawn in time for our 4am journey back to Manila, avoiding the late afternoon traffic. I’m taking a part of Albay with me in my packed foodie gifts — frozen pinangat, Guinobatan longganisa, muscovado sugar, some dried fish — and my wonderful experience meeting some of Albay’s culinary heroes.

Essentials.
How to get there. There are daily direct flights from Manila to Legazpi City in Albay. Book a flight on Philippines Airlines or Cebu Pacific Air.

By land, book a car or a van from Carfield. Negotiate for use of vehicle and driver only and pay for the gasoline and toll fees yourself because it will be cheaper. Tel +632 986 7176

You can also book a sleeper bus from Isarog bus. The bus departs from the Cubao terminal at 9pm every Monday, Wedneday and Friday. Fare is P1,100. There are also regular airconditioned buses (P850) that ply the route daily. Tel +632 423 2957

A map of Albay highlighting the foodie stops. By Jardin Duran
Getting around.
 Jeepney and tricyles are the main means of transport in getting to places in Albay. Jeepneys are a good choice if going from village to village or even town to town as these pass through main thoroughfares but tricycles are best to hire if you’re off to inner streets. Jeepney and tricyle fare both starts at P8 per person but for the latter you will have to pay for all four seats if you cannot wait for other passengers bound for the same location you’re off to to share costs with.

If you are commuting to distant towns like Polangui, Jovellar or Tabaco and Tiwi in District 3, it’s best to go to the Central Bus Station in Legazpi City where there are UV Express vans bound for each town in Albay. Fair starts at P40.

Casa Lorenzo
Where to stay.
 Casa Lorenzo in Daraga, a stone’s throw away from the airport, is a newly built, heritage house-inspired hotel with seven aircon rooms. It opened in October 2014 and is getting good reviews. It has function rooms, an al fresco restaurant, and a bar at the ground floor. All rooms have the same amenities — double bed, cable TV, wooden cabinet, and private bathroom with hot and cold running water. 

A room night costs P1,800. Slightly bigger rooms cost P2,000 per night. +63921 391 6646.

Book a stay at The Oriental Legazpi if you want an unobstructed view of Mt. Mayon at any given time, whether you’re dining from the house restaurant, Jasmine, or taking a dip in the infinity pool, or simply sipping cocktails at the lobby bar. The Oriental is a remarkable all-glass structure with an all-white interior, with modern rooms fitted with modcons and picture windows.

Best time to go. Visit during the Amihan months of December to February when the temperature is cooler and therefore ideal for exploring the different towns and engaging in activities like all-terrain vehicle riding. The month-long Karangahan Festival, a festival celebrated mardi gras style, is also held in December.

 But for better chances of seeing postcard perfect Mt. Mayon amidst clear blue skies, visit during the summer months of March to May. April sees another important festival in Albay called Magayon, which celebrates everything that’s good and beautiful about the province, from food to local crafts to the people and Mt. Mayon itself.

Tour guide and packages. Some of the tours mentioned are not formalized yet. It’s best to contact Renato Jao, alias Bicolano Man, of the Provincial Tourism Office for help in organizing bespoke tours or for inquiries on organized tours. 

Published December 2015