Dinengdeng is a testament to the Ilocanos’ frugality. No Ilocano worth his salt can claim he does not eat dinengdeng. Dinengdeng has graced every household’s dining table, rich or poor. Bagoong which is the most essential ingredient in dinengdeng is what fuels the blood of every home grown Ilocano.
My friends who’s tasted this quintessential Ilocano dish would always ask me how we cook this simple viand. If you are from Northern Luzon or Ilocos, cooking this dish needs no laborious or extensive planning. As they say, it is a “no brainer.”
Just never underestimate an Ilocana’s resourcefulness and imagination what to put in her pot of dinengdeng. This vegetable stew is best served mixed with fish, meat or whatever protein is on hand. Yes, it could even be vegetarian or flavored with a small amount of dried fish or shrimps. But one element that you cannot replace in a tasty dinengdeng is a good bagoong (fermented fish). And the fish sauce of choice is made out of monamon or anchovies.
Bagoong is not only fishy but pungent, a very strong smell which can be offputting to the uninitiated. But to Ilocanos, a good bagoong is the best flavor enhancer to their dishes.
There is no strict and fast rules on what vegetable combination goes well together. What goes in the pot is commonly dictated by what is in season or whatever is available. Whatever vegetables one have at home or one can gather in the yard as long as they are freshly picked. Like during the rainy season when bamboo shoots are prolific and saluyot grows in many empty lots, topped with fresh catch of mullet from the river is enough to make one sing his blessings. When it is dry season, most backyards have malunggay trees in their yard which can be mixed with eggplant, upo, squash or even mashed sweet potato.
We also add shallots to the water and bagoong brew. Shallots is commonly grown in Ilocos.
I cooked dinengdeng last night for dinner. I had on hand some green beans, squash, and kangkong. The grilled tilapia that Auntie Cely brown bagged for me was added to the boiling water with bagoong. I have already added some young green onions. Once boiling profusely, I added my squash, let it cook for 5 minutes, then the green beans and last was the kangkong. If you have been using these vegetables you know how long they would be cooked. In our household, the vegetables are never mushy. Make sure that they are still identifiable and distinct from each other so they preserve their color otherwise they would look unappetizing.
When a protein is already pre-cooked, like fried or grilled, you can add them last and let it boil once before serving just so the protein’s flavor gets assimilated in the soup. The protein is just to compliment the vegetables, a slice or two is enough, it should not overwhelm the flavors of the veggies.
I also had adobo with my meal but even without it, make sure you have plenty of rice.
And that my friends is what makes an Ilocano happy!