The queen of Ilocano cuisine, the favorite vegetable dish of almost every Filipino I know, Ilocano or non-Ilocano, is pacbet. This dish clearly resembles the famous French vegetable dish, ratatouille, and is prepared in a hundred different ways.
The best way, in my biased opinion, is my paternal grandmother’s recipe: cooked soft all the way down into the depths of the pot that had been left covered (never ever lift that lid while the pacbet is cooking!) and the vegetables, soaked in its ginger, bagoong, tomato mixture, are still left intact, a bit dried out looking but served over boiled rice and pork or chicken adobo, is pure heaven. The idea of the covered pot is to let the pressure that has been built in the pot stay within until it pushes the vegetables all the way down into the bottom of the pot while soaking in the sauce. I find that in restaurants, the vegetables are cooked in too much sauce, making them bloated and bland in taste.
In the Tagalog region in Central Luzon, pacbet is adulterated with squash that resembles another vegetable dish called bulanglang. In other regions, legumes like lima beans are added and in modern cuisines, crispy roasted pork loin is cooked on top of the pinacbet. All these variations are acceptable. However, for the purists, I will describe my grandmother, Nana Immang’s recipe.Immang’s Pinacbet½ lb. eggplants½ lb. bitter melon½ lb. string beans½ lb. okra (optional)½ cup lima beans½ lb. sweet pepper3-4 tomatoes1 pc of ginger, 2-3 inches long, crushed1 bunch garlic leaves or 3-4 garlic cloves, crushed, left whole1/3 cup bagoong (fermented fish) or anchovy paste1 bunch of scallions
1/3 lb. pork belly with skin intactCoarse salt
It is almost religion in my family to use the best vegetables for the dish – no short cuts. Woe to that person who want to be creative and vary the dish.
Clean vegetables. It is not necessary to cut them up if they are small in size and can fit into the pot. Otherwise, here’s how you cut them up: eggplant (sliced lengthwise into four parts but kept together at the stem); bitter melon (deseeded and quartered or kept whole if using the small rounded variation); long string beans (cut up in four parts); okra (optional, kept whole with crown top cut off); pepper (not spicy but sweet, kept whole); and garlic leaves left whole or cut in half. Pile those vegetables in layers in a deep pot. Top with crushed ginger.
Squeeze 4-5 tomatoes: leave pulp with the rest of the vegetables. Place scallions, left whole on top. Crush and homogenize bagoong in ½ cup water. Pour bagoong liquid through a sieve over whole pot of vegetables. Press all juice from bagoong fish; discard remnants. When using anchovy paste, homogenize ¼ cup with ¾ cup of water and pour on top of vegetables.
One can also top all these with roasted crunchy chicharon or bagnet. Or, broil pork loin with the crunchy skin intact. Cover pork skin and meat with coarse salt. Broil at 475F until skin gets brown and crackles. Chop this up and place on top of all the ingredients.
Cover pot with a heavy lid. Cook on medium heat for 20-25 minutes. When the aroma of cooking pinacbet wafts out and steam is coming out of the lid, one is tempted to raise the cover. DON’T. Without taking the lid off, take pot of heat and vigorously shake it using both hands. Replace pot on stove at low heat for about five minutes. Let it cool off for about 10 minutes. Right before serving, lift off the lid. Et voila! You have cooked the perfect pinacbet.