The Brutal, Bloody Story Behind PinikpikanDecember 18, 2019
*Some names changed upon request.
Mike had travelled to the Mountain Province since he was a young boy, as soon as he was able to take the long trip up the mountains during the summer. He travelled there with his family, all of them from Manila, who organized medical missions. Every time they came up, they were all welcomed by the town as one of their own. The summer would go by with Mike playing with other kids and helping out with their community projects. By the end of the summer, on the day before they left, the town would send them off with a farewell party. At that party, about as casually as one would bring in a big pot of food or a bottle of their native wine, there would be someone who would arrive with a live chicken. Minutes later, a small circle would gather around him. It would start.
A town Elder, a person who was immersed in their traditions and trusted by the town, is given a stick, which he holds in one hand, while his other hand was kept firm around the chicken’s neck. He would crouch down on the ground, and raise the stick—whack!—as it came down on the animal. It would go on for a while longer. Mike watched, stunned, as they continued to beat the chicken, then go on to de-feather, burn, then cut and dismember it before it was finally cooked.
He was later reassured by one of the older townsfolk, “We’ve been doing this for a long time. We offer the chicken’s pain and suffering in exchange for someone else’s pain and suffering.” For that occasion, more than the festivities themselves, it was for Mike and his family to have a safe trip back.
Pinikpikan comes from the Ilocano word, “pikpik”, which loosely means to hit repeatedly. Studies say that it was first cooked to appease spirits worshipped by the tribes of the Mountain Province. It was also said to have been a ritual for tribes facing a difficult decision. According to Igorot Elder and documentary photographer, Tommy Hafalla, who is based in Baguio, more often than not, the ritual is a daoes (dao-es), which means a “cleansing”. In the ritual, the spirits and the ancestors are invoked to help grant what is being asked for. The divination is a loose term, referring to the act of reading the gallbladder after the chicken is dismembered. For sickness and safe travels, a full gall bladder that’s filled with thick bile is a good thing. But if one asks asking for vanquishing enemies in battle, the full gall bladder is a bad thing. “For Igorots, they summon the ancestors,” says Hafalla. While pinikpikan now aims to break all the bones in the chicken’s body to make it more tender, ritual dictates that the bones be broken and the chicken cut a certain way.
It is now a part of most local menus in the Cordilleras, with a few market stalls in Baguio preparing uncooked pinikpikan to take home upon request. It even earned the English name, “Killing Me Softly Chicken”, playing off the hit Roberta Flack song. “It started as a joke,” says Hafalla, “but it just stuck.”
“The Cordillera Way”
For this story, our photographer Nikki found a café in Baguio that agreed to demonstrate how pinikpikan is prepared and cooked in hopes that it would, “clear up misunderstandings about the dish.” according to Lysa, one of the co-owners. Lysa is an Igorot herself who grew up witnessing the ritual and practices it to this day. She was weary of the criticism from having the dish on their menu, and having to explain what the custom meant for her and her people. All Igorots in the region have experienced or practiced pinikpikan at some point in their lives. When the kitchen staff were given the live chicken for their pinikpikan, they asked in Tagalog if it was to be done, “The café way, or the Cordillera way?”
On the day of the demonstration, Lysa forgot that half of the cafe was booked for a private party. She still had the demonstration continue in a corner of their outdoor dining area, warning Nikki with a chuckle, “You’re going to be scandalizing a lot of people here.” Hafalla was supposed to join them to explain the ritual during the demonstration, but he was running late. The demonstration started without him, as a new wave cover band played live for the party near them. Their featured performer, a local celebrity, upon noticing the activity at their table, couldn’t help but pass by after her set, “Kawawa naman! (Poor thing!)” She exclaimed, right before she took a photo with her phone. As a ritual, the chicken is first hit over the head with the stick then de-feathered. The “pikpik” or hazing is done after, while those at the ritual talk about their ancestors to summon them. Afterwards, they dismember the chicken.
The café staff went about beating, de-feathering, and the initial burning of the chicken with a small blowtorch and on a portable stove top. They set the chicken on the chopping board to dismember, when suddenly, a voice rang out, “No!”
There was a shocked pause, then Hafalla ran right in, bearing a small knife in hand. He shooed away the cook, and took over. He made small incisions on the chicken’s neck and thighs. The incisions allowed him to slip his hand beneath its skin, so he could crack the ribcage. He would explain later that the knife he brought was a ritual knife, used only for ceremonies such as this. After cracking the ribcage, he would go on to dismember the chicken with his bare hands. The ancestors are called upon in dismemberment, Hafalla explained. This was also where the decision-making aspect of the ritual was done. Hafalla tore into the chicken, and pointed out that the gall bladder was full, a good omen, “Did anyone make a wish?”
After fully dismembering the chicken, Hafalla explains, it cooks in a pot with water and a slab of itag, the dry salted pork that was a signature of Cordillera cuisine. While it would be put in a bowl after, it was not for human consumption yet. This pinikpikan is “served” to the ancestors they prayed to. While it cooked, Hafalla tied the chicken feathers with sage and gumamela leaves together to create a token called the kawkaw. This was the final part of their call to the ancestors. The kawkaw becomes an artifact of protection, and is often put above the front door of Igorot homes.
Afterwards, the ancestors’ pinikpikan is put in a separate bowl. Some time passes, allowing the ancestors to eat, says Hafalla. This is also where they’re told of the intentions to the pinikpikan, usually safe passage or relief from sickness. “But you also ask for peaceful dreams so they don’t haunt you.”
The pinikpikan is brought to another pot, where the vegetables and additional seasoning are added and it’s stewed again, this time for consumption. In the olden days, even before the colonial era, tapuy or local wine was used to infuse the pinikpikan and tenderize the chicken. It was coq a vin, centuries before France even realized the Philippines was on the map.
Now, to those who cook the dish just to eat, they say that the beating is an integral part of what makes pinikpikan. The beating allows the blood to clot, and less blood is spilled when the chicken is chopped. There are also others who choose to be kinder to the chicken, and prepare it as one would prepare tinola, but with chicken blood added to the soup for flavor.
Calling the Ancestors
Mike is now all grown up, and tries to visit the Mountain Province at least once a year with his parents. As the town he visits has become more developed over the years, with paved roads, wifi-ready hostels, and even a commercial center for visiting tourists, there is fear that traditions will soon be wiped out and forgotten.
But in desperate times, tradition calls back to them. To this day, Mike says, near the town hospital at night, pockets of people gather there. They make pinikpikan and murmur their prayers for a family member nearing death. They go through the ritual as they have witnessed and practiced it before. The chicken is cooked for the ancestors during prayer, then cooked for themselves. If they are lucky, they get to share it with the one they prayed for—if he or she survives the night.