Ilocos’ Fearsome Delight: Papaitan

papaitan (Photo by Victor Merano)
By Oliver Oliveros, editor-in-chief

I wear my “adventure hat,” similar to that of intrepid traveler and foodie Anthony Bourdain, when I visit far-flung places, whose geographical locations are actually relative to fleeting points of origin—because I travel a lot for work. The main idea, though, is to try out local culinary specialties in order to experience a bit of the food culture of the place you’re visiting. Sometimes the experience lingers on: a case in point, the Ilocos Region’s (in the Philippines) fearsome papaitan.

Chicago-based gastronome Victor Merano, who’s an advocate for Filipino cuisine, and who blogs at, best describes the distinctly Ilocano food: “Papaitan is a famous Ilocano soup dish mostly composed of cow or goat innards. The name of this dish was derived from the Filipino word ‘pait,’ which means ‘bitter.’ The bitter taste of this soup comes from the bile. This is a bitter juice extracted by the liver and stored in the gallbladder to aid digestion.”

Not for the faint-hearted, huh? The papaitan can be intimidating, but it’s a welcoming departure from the too sweet Filipino spaghetti and too salty tuyo I was accustomed to growing up in Manila, the Philippines’ hub for mostly everything.

I first encountered the dish at a food stop in Vigan City, Ilocos Sur, more than 15 years ago, while en route to a youth mission trip for CFC Singles for Christ to Laoag City. Served hot from a native clay pot, the papaitan’s bitter broth dampens your dry mouth and throat, and satisfies your empty stomach during a 10 to 12-hour-long bus ride. Since then I’ve been craving for the uncommon papaitan whenever I journey the roads of Ilocos.

Now stationed in New York, much to my delight, I got reunited with the papaitan on my first night in the big city—of all places— as a graduate student at New York University (NYU) in the winter of 2011. Think of perfect timing: the wintry weather was unapologetically cold, but there I was—tired and hungry after a 13-hour-plane ride from Manila—sipping the bitter hot soup of the papaitan, served in a familiar white ceramic bowl, at Café 81, a Filipino restaurant in the East Village.

Silently I burped; grinning from ear to ear.

Of note, there has been a burgeoning demand for Filipino dishes in the city in the last three to four years. So if you find yourself in the heart of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, do yourself a favor and relish a wide array of sumptuous Pinoy food at these popular restaurants: Manhattan’s Maharlika, Jeepney Ugly Kitchen, Grill 21, and Pandesal; Queens’ Sizzle Me, Papa’s Kitchen, Payag, Ihawan, Perlas, Engeline’s, Renee’s Kitchen, Fritzies, and Fiesta Grill; and Brooklyn’s Purple Yam, among others.

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