Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Filipinos are familiar with the kalabaw: an icon dubbed the Philippines’ “National Animal,” the strong and hard-working creature that plows fields. But in Tuguegarao City, a small town up in the northern region of the country, one word best describes the bovine: nasingngo (delicious).
Cagayan Valley is the largest source of corn nationwide, and the second for palay. And so it makes sense that carabaos (or nuang in Ybanag) abound in Tuguegarao — and all over the northern region — because farmers needed them in place of the much less cost-effective four-wheeled tractor.
I grew up in Tuguegarao, seeing carabaos walk on the road in front of our house, on the highway, in Nuang Carera (carabao races during the 90’s-2000’s Pavvurulun Festivals), and in barangay rice fields as we drove out of the city center. But I also grew up seeing carabaos on my breakfast plate — in tapa form, that is — on candy labels, and in meat shops and the palengke.
Here are five ways Tuguegaraoeños consume carabao products.
1. Carabao chicharron
Unlike the fried pig skin version most of the world is familiar with, carabao skin chicharron doesn’t curl into crunchy morsels. It puffs into crisp, airy, practically melt-in-your-mouth balls. The snack is sold by the same mambabalut (people who sell balut) that roam the streets at night. Otherwise tasteless, it’s typically seasoned with salt, pepper, and betsin.
But the Lighthouse Cooperative, a local company that sells homegrown goods, has given the treat a name: Chicharabao. And while salt and pepper is well and good, Chicharabao reinvented carabao chicharron by giving it three different flavors: garlic, onion and vinegar, and hot and spicy.
2. Milk candy
Carabao milk candy is distinct in its form, taste, and texture. Unlike soft pastillas, it comes in chewy rectangular chips. There’s a depth of flavor in carabao milk candy that I can only attribute to carabao’s milk — a sort of powdered milk sweet after-taste, without the dryness of Mik-Mik.
There are three popular carabao milk candy makers in Tuguegarao: Dairy East, Alcala Sweets, and Teaño Alcala. Dairy East’s version is a little sweeter than the other two, Alcala Sweets’ has a more muted carabao-milky taste, and Teaño’s candy is a little softer and chewier (especially when made fresh).
3. Carabao’s milk
Carabao’s milk is at its freshest in the morning, right after a harvest from the farms in Namabbalan, which is the barangay known as Tuguegarao’s main source of carabao milk. (The milk is, of course, pasteurized.)
A bottle from Dairy East — which is where most locals get fresh carabao’s milk — is warm, and feels like a hug from the moment it touches the tip of your tongue to seconds it takes to flow down from your throat to your stomach. It’s creamy, and so rich that you’d almost think it was savory. It also has a subtle sweetness that is reminiscent of powdered milk.
It’s perfect for a nice, thick milkshake, but also makes for a really rich butter.
Tuguegarao’s best cara-beef tapa can’t be found in any restaurants or grocery store freezers. Tapa is a homemade, family-owned business affair. The best marinated cara-beef can be found in small homes, between the narrow eskinitas of the city, with signs that read “Homemade Tapa.” A couple of the best are found in an area called Bagumbayan, namely Neneng’s and Cadatal’s.
Cara-beef has a natural gamey flavor that draws a lot from its meaty, somewhat creamy smell. It is tougher than regular beef, so when cooking the tapa there’s a need to cook it in a water and oil mixture, to ensure that the meat stays tender.
5. Pancit Batil Patong
In Tuguegarao City, panciterias are as common as 7-Elevens — there’s one in just about every street corner. And every one of them needs of cara-beef to be able to serve their, and the city’s, signature dish: pancit batil patong.
The noodle dish is a heaping pile of toppings that may or may not include, depending on the panciteria, lechon karahay, pork liver, mixed vegetables, onions, chorizo, and chicharron bulaklak (pork intestine chicharron). But the two things that should never be lost in the mix are the batil (egg) and ground carabao beef.
Until now, farmers you see in the fields of Tuguegarao are more likely to own a carabao than a machine — despite the city’s fast growth as a major urban center. But beyond its importance to farmers, all these delicacies give locals more reason to value the kalabaw.