A Journey of Philippine  rediscovery, one vegetable  at a time
A Journey of Philippine rediscovery, one vegetable at a time

If health is wealth, then we have a treasure trove right under our noses—our indigenous vegetables. They are the inexpensive and natural sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other essential nutrients.

Indigenous vegetables are part of Filipino cuisine. They are nutritious but low-cost options in the Filipino food basket.

Once part of traditional farming systems and home gardens, many are now depleted and underutilized despite their recognized importance. Behind this unfortunate state of affairs of our indigenous vegetables lies a lack of many things: available germplasm for widespread use, seeds, information on their use and importance, and on how they can fit into production systems.

At the same time, there is a preferential emphasis on the production, marketing, and consumption of high-value vegetables reinforced by a generally low regard for indigenous vegetables among consumers.

To help encourage and engage Filipinos in producing and consuming indigenous vegetables, a two-year project of UPLB kicked off in January 2018 to document and promote indigenous vegetables.

The project, entitled “Documentation of indigenous vegetables in the Philippines” was funded by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD), particularly with support from Secretary Fortunato T. dela Peña who put this effort among DOST’s priorities.

Under the technical leadership of the country’s foremost experts in plant genetic resources conservation and management, Prof. Nestor C. Altoveros and Prof. Teresita H. Borromeo of the Institute of Crop Science (ICropS), the team composed of researchers and faculty of ICropS (Dr. Lorna Sister, Prof. Renerio P. Gentallan, Jr. and Dr. Leah E. Endonela) and the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (NPGRL) based at the Institute of Plant Breeding (Hidelisa de Chavez and Catherine Hazel M. Aguilar) assembled available information on indigenous vegetables from printed and electronic resources as well as from on-the-ground municipal- and barangay-level interactions in 20 provinces in the Philippines.

These provinces include Abra, Batangas, Bohol, Bukidnon, Camarines Sur, Capiz, Davao del Sur, Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur, Iloilo, La Union, Leyte, Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya, Quezon, Rizal, Siquijor, South Cotabato, Surigao del Sur and Zamboanga del Norte.

The information and insights have been overwhelming, with efforts still ongoing to compile these into a simple database on Philippine indigenous vegetables, a compendium of literatures on indigenous vegetables, a semi-technical book containing vignettes of information on the different species identified by the communities, and 20 pamphlets.

Come and have a taste of this journey of re-discovery with a dish of pakbet.

Pakbet: from Ilocandia to the rest of the Philippines

Pakbet is one very local dish that is known, prepared, and eaten by so many Filipinos but which will probably cause a bit of a stir of confusion on its true nature.

Pakbet has many local versions. Cebuanos have their own pakbet just like the Ilocanos have theirs. Ilocanos, likewise, have a number of versions. From north to south, there are enough pakbet versions to easily fill a two-week lunch menu.

According to Prof. Altoveros, pakbet (read as “pakbut” with a short u sound) is one of the truly Filipino dishes with no foreign influence. Its name was derived from the Ilocano word pinakebbet, or shriveled; hence the mix of shriveled sautéed vegetables.

There is really no dichotomy between Ilocano pakbet and Bisaya’ng pakbet. Pakbet, in fact, enjoys rather than suffers from multiple personalities, but alukon or himbabao (Broussonetia luzonica) perhaps makes a pakbet dish distinctly of the north although it may not actually be always present.

Alukon is the long, spike-like inflorescence (called catkin) of a medium-sized tree of the mulberry family. It offers carbohydrates, proteins, fibers, and calcium for energy, blood production, and bone and teeth health. An economically important species, it is already listed as “depleted in the wild” according to the definition of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Diversity of Philippine indigenous vegetables in a plate of pakbet

The multiplicity of pakbet gives insight into how much diversity there is in the Philippines’ indigenous vegetables. There are at least three other noteworthy versions of Ilocano pakbet most of us may not be aware of.

The ampalaya’ng pakbet is an all-bitter-gourd version featuring the globose fruits of the native variant. Pakbet na lasona gulay features the whole immature shallot plant, while pakbet na bawang gulay is a similar version but features native garlic greens or whole immature garlic plants. The latter two are available in December to January when the garlic and shallot crops are at the appropriate stage. Also, both have no need for any other spices. Mind you, though, immature shallots and garlic greens do not mix, they say in Ilocandia.

Normally, pakbet can have any combination of saluyot (jute), utong (cowpea), pallang (winged bean), kabatiti (sponge gourd), patani (lima bean), okra (lady fingers), parda (hyacinth bean), panalayapen (false olive), u-ong (mushrooms), ampalaya (bitter gourd), singkamas (jicama), kardis (pigeon pea), galiang (yautia), rabong (bamboo shoots), bagbagkong/sabidukong (Telosma procumbens) – and even camote (sweetpotato).

Well, yes, a few more indigenous vegetables are just as qualified for a slot in a pakbet pot, like the squash, string beans, eggplant, and okra that are main features of the Bisaya’ng pakbet.

Invariably, a pakbet dish is flavored with bagoong (fermented fish sauce) in the north or shrimp paste among the Bisaya, along with lots of chopped tomatoes.

Imagine a journey across the archipelago to spot these indigenous vegetables in their natural setting. It would probably take one summer to search only for pakbet’s ingredients.

A feast at our feet

Roughly 10 months of field work led to the following conclusions:

• The literature on Philippine indigenous vegetables is mostly grey, pointing to a significant research potential

• Even then, there is a significant body of research output from the early champions such as the Institute of Plant Breeding at UPLB, Mariano Marcos State University in Ilocos Norte, Central Mindanao University in Musuan, Bukidnon, the Batanes Experiment Station under the Department of Agriculture Field Office-Region II, and even local government units such as the provincial government of Capiz.

• The more than 150 species identified is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg – this vegetable iceberg – as more species from other provinces and ecosystems have been brought to the team’s attention by eager informants.

• Most are cooked in simple dishes – sautéed or as a vegetable soup. Cooking in coconut milk is another dominant preparation that reflects the country’s tropical environment. So far, more than 200 traditional preparations have been shared by the communities visited.

• Some spices and condiments have been reported as vegetables in some communities; others would not have any of it – spices, colorants and aromatics are what they are, and they are not vegetables, they say.

• Leaves and fruits in various stages depending on the species, stems or vines, underground parts and even flowers, buds/cores (ubod), and seedlings or whole plants are harvested and utilized as vegetables.

The list of preparations and their recipes pile up, and the team realized that most of these are just gathered from the wild, field borders, and homegardens or shared/exchanged in the community. So, let us go and be wowed (again) by the Philippines, one vegetable – or dish – at a time.

Photo from the Indigenous Vegetables Project, Institute of Crop Science