Every Thursday and Sunday, numerous stalls set up temporary shops along the street in front of the Ligao City Public Market for market day. It’s a day when small farmers head to town with their produce, when the smell of dried fish assaults the packed street, when carts of bright red shallots get parked under an umbrella, when vacationers descend upon the tables filled with candied pili nuts for pasalubong, and women selling mounds of almost translucent alamang (shrimp paste) holler at the crowd. The street comes alive like a fiesta and my mom weaves through it like a local. After all, Ligao is where she was born and raised.
Ligao is a relatively young city (it became one just over a decade ago) and as such, it still has a small rural town vibe. It is one of the cities in Albay, a province in the Philippines largely known for its affinity towards fiery dishes soaked in coconut milk and the majestic (and very active) Mayon Volcano.
We spent Easter Sunday in Ligao and after we heard the 8 a.m. mass, walked to the market to find breakfast and pasalubong or gifts we could bring home. Our first order of business was to buy candied pili nuts to bring home to Manila. I never liked pili nut as a kid, but I grew to like it (the same way I didn’t like buro when I was younger, but grew to love that Kapampangan side dish of fermented rice, which needs an entire blog post to itself). Pili nut tastes quite oily, so I wasn’t surprised that it has one of the highest fat content among nuts.
Mom found a stall that sold crispy candied pili nuts. It wasn’t as expensive as the branded ones sold in pasalubong centers, but it was one of the better ones we’ve tried. And soon a crowd was in front of it and the table filled with packets and containers of pili nuts was almost wiped out. After buying all the candied pili nuts we ‘needed’, mom wanted to find raw pili nuts. She wanted to roast them herself, without any sugar, while I wondered if we could use them for pesto. Though pili is locally grown in the Bicol region, we only found one stall in the street market selling them. The stall also had a table filled with some candied versions, but in the corner there was a plastic bag of raw pili nuts. Score!
No trip to the market in that part of the country would be complete without stopping by the stalls selling daing (dried, salted fish) and tinapa (smoked fish). Just follow the scent (stinky for newcomers, beloved by Pinoys) and take your pick from the different varieties of fish that have been dried or smoked–asuhos, bisugo, abo, galunggong, etc. We made sure to buy some tinapa and daing for breakfast. When we got home, we fried it and ate it with diced tomatoes, onions and cucumber and a plate of hot rice. Simple and satisfying.
There were also vendors selling alamang (which my mom proudly pointed out wasn’t in the scary shade of pink as those found in Manila. “Malinis ang alamang dito,” she said.) Vendors selling all sorts of greens and vegetables. Carts of freshly harvested mangoes. Vendors selling dry goods like toys, trinkets and even what looked like shiny costumes for kids who want to look like the Santo Nino or the Child Jesus. Curiously, what I didn’t see on the street were carts of chilies and coconut to make all those popular Bicolano dishes. But with our shopping bag filled with pili nuts, daing, tinapa, and mangoes, it was already a Happy Easter morning.