Carla Poleen Rosito was a community organizer for the environmental non-government organization (NGO) Cordillera Green Network when her director suggested she open a coffee shop to help out the highland coffee farmers have an outlet to showcase their products. Carla eventually accepted the challenge and the idea for a cafe was born.
Her anthropology degree and experience created the perfect storm – or the perfect cup – to create Cafe Yagam. Carla reminisces, “Because of my work with the NGO traveling all around the Cordillera, I learned a lot about our culture. I was active with a cultural and research group and every time we have gatherings we always cook our regional specialties to the point that it became a competition for us. All these experiences inspired me when the opportunity came for me to open the cafe.“
Launching Cafe Yagam, named after her daughter, was not easy. However, she was determined to bring to life the dishes she grew up with as a child of the mountains. “I knew that I wanted to serve Cordilleran cuisine and the interior should feel like you are in the ili (Cordilleran term for village). I had many Cordilleran artists who helped me with the interior design and even the plating of the dishes.”
The next challenge was how to get the word out that Cafe Yagam was open for business. At first, business was slow. Carla recalls, “When I joined a Google Business Group event here in Baguio, the team helped me become visible online. This sparked interest among foodies, tourists and eventually the media came and did features on the Cafe. Events organized by Baguio and Cordilleran artists also became a regular thing in the Cafe. It became a home to artists and writers in Baguio.”
Cafe Yagam’s dishes and unique vibe soon piqued the interest of tourists and locals alike. Carla adds, “Entering top 24 in the GBG stories search was already a big surprise for us because this was a global contest and we were not hopeful for a spot. We were the only Baguio and Cordilleran entry to enter top 24, then they announced top 9 and we also got a spot.”
So how does everyone feel about the recognition? She shares, “This is when everybody got excited for us, because we are the first Baguio and Cordilleran to ever reach the final top 9. I would say being searchable in Google and Google Maps had really helped our business in a big way that we did not find the need to do marketing like in the radio or newspaper. We hope that Cafe Yagam can continue to survive and become the place where you escape from the City and experience the old Baguio again.”
What can diners find at the cafe? Aside from classic and fusion dishes, pasta and really good pressed Arabica coffee from the best beans Cordillera has to offer, Cafe Yagam serves several Cordillera dishes –Pinikpikan, Pinuneg, Binungor, Igwilas with Kiniing and Kiniwar.
Pinikpikan, the traditional ritual food in the Cordillera, is prepared during special occasions as an offering to the spirits. It is a smoky chicken stew with etag (Cordilleran salted cured pork) and vegetables, typically sayote.
Cafe Yagam also has Pinuneg or the Cordilleran blood sausage. This Kankanaey dish is made up of curdled pig’s blood, minced pork and spices and usually served whenever a pig is killed in a ceremony or ritual. TheKankanaeyare one of the major tribes in Benguet and parts of the Mountain Province.
From Carla’s mother, Tita Carol, comes Binungor, a spicy dish from the Kalinga province made up of different vegetables, forest mushrooms and “agurong” (lowland term for suso, a river shellfish) Or Ot-an or Ket-an (Cordilleran term for suso).
Igwilas or white legumes with Kiniing (Cordilleran smoked pork) and vegetables is a hearty dish some diners have likened to laing without the coconut milk. The kiniing lends it a smoky and savory flair.
In the meantime, Kiniwar (meaning mixed together), a dessert made of sticky rice, coconut cream and coconut with sugarcane tagapulot.
Cafe Yagam is in the running to be among the top 3 stories for 2017. At stake is a chance to win a trip to the Google I/O Tech Conference in California. Wouldn’t it be nice if this little cafe that could, which is helping showcase Filipino highland cuisine, culture and coffee, be given a larger opportunity to show that the Filipino can?
Vote here and help spread the word. Voting closes on Wednesday, September 13, 11:59pm PST.