Burnay, The Clay Pots of The Ilocos Region

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One of the things I wanted to acquire during the trip to Ilocos were a bunch of palayoks or clay pots so that I could experiment with cooking dishes the “old-fashioned” way. I have always been fascinated by the claims that food tastes better when cooked in palayoks, so I wanted to buy some. In addition, I have always been intrigued with clay water vessels that seem to yield water that is actually cooler than the ambient temperature…but that may be an illusion or perception… though marble’s resting temperature does seem colder than the air around it. On our first day in Vigan, we hired a calesa to take us to a local pot maker or factory, otherwise referred to as a “pinagburnayan.” There is an excellent article on Vigan’s pinagburnayan and burnay, by Cynthia O. Valdez, published in the Inquirer, link here. Ms. Valdez was a member of the Philippine Ceramics Society and her article is a nicely written introduction to the history and lore surrounding these common yet fascinating potteries from the Ilocos Region… Once at the factory, they were kind enough to give us a demonstration of how the vessels were made:

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First, start with an imposing potters wheel…

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…then, slap a lump of clay around a bit…

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…then placed firmly on a potter’s wheel…

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…add some human “kick power” to get the potter’s wheel turning at a pretty impressive speed…

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…and the potter started to form the vessel; take note of the wood in the background that is used for the kilns…

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…then more detail are added to the traditionally rather utilitarian shapes and forms and voila, just minutes later a finished pot that would be air-dried for a while before a trip to be baked in a wood-fired kiln.

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The burnay are used as fermentation vats for the famous bagoong or fish pastes from the region and they can also be used to ferment wines and liquors. It amazes me that the pots seem waterproof even though they are unglazed. This particular potter didn’t have the right sized palayoks, so I didn’t buy mine here, but we did have a wonderful time seeing a pot made from scratch…

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17 Responses

  1. Yes, water stays cool in clay earthen container. The container has to be cleaned thoroughly once a week. If no maintenance clean up done the water taste like algae and you see the algae growth at the bottom of the container. Rice cooked in palayok lined with banana leaves is very delectable and aromatic. Pinakbet cooked in palayok with tight fitting lid is delicious. Pinaupong manok (chicken buried in salt) cooked in palayok is unbeatable. Green carabao mangoes ripened in clay earthen containers taste much better than the ones just kept in a bamboo crate.

  2. Did you try to form the clay ala Demi Moore/Ghost? ;) I did, when I went to Vigan, and I learned that it isn’t as easy as it seems! Fun experience tho :)

  3. A good palayok or earthen containers must be non-porous usually the black clay ones. One has to run a spot test by pouring water through the vessel if the water permeates through then it is not a good one.

  4. In the picture where the potter is using “kick power” to gather momentum, I thought he was about to pummel the clay into submission!

  5. Among the tea adepts of Japan, the most highly valued leaf-tea jars (Cha-tsubo) were from the Philippines. Two of the famous three that belonged to the Sen family were from Luzon and on top of those was the famous one that belonged to Tokugawa Ieyasu that he called Dai Rozun or Great Luzon. I of course proudly assumed that they were our native burnays but as it turned out, they were Sung pieces. The point is there were exemplars of great pottery forms available to local potters even before the dawn of our written history.

    Aside from the common casuela that the Spaniards use for serving sizzling shrimp ajillo, they also traditionally use a pitcher-shaped earthen pot called pochero to slow cook stew in an oven.

    Cracked slowly leaking palayok is used for making lihiya (Spanish pronunciation of legia is le-HI-ya). Make a bonfire of dried amaranth, gather the ash, place in palayok, add water and catch the drip.

  6. As a kid, I had this miniature clay cooking pot set, including the kalan and plates. It was glazed and painted colorfully. I never tried cooking with it, but now I wish I did. I wonder if they still make these baby sets…

  7. A porus clay pot will keep water cooler due to the evaporative effect from the pot’s surface. I’m from California and the Hispanic culture here includes alot of clay vessel cooking.

  8. So where did you buy your palayok, MM? Last week I was in Carbon and there is an old lady selling palayok with lid and I started inspecting it but then I noticed that the inside had some burnt spots. The old lady said it was during the baking and that indicate good quality. She’s selling it for P40 and its a medium sized palayok. But I didn’t bought it. Maybe next time…..

  9. When I visited Lemery Batangas 4 years ago, I bought some “black glazed” palayok in a local market. Unfortunately, I did packed them good and they were broken when I opened my Balikbayan box. Suprisingly though the “minature” baby sets that are unglazed were ok and I still have these 2 sets as a decoration in my house. I don’t know for sure but I think in Ilalim ng Quiapo, you can still buy these little ones.

  10. Thanks for showing clay making…. i really love it…I wish I can see them work when I come home…thanks again

  11. I remember as I young kid when the family visited some relatives in Pangasinan, the farm they live in didn’t have any access to electricity. If they wanted ice they have to literally travel miles to get ice, which are usually sold in blocks, placed inside a sack and packed with lots of rice husks to prevent it from melting. Ice was a luxury back then. So in place of ice, water is stored in tapayans which oddly does cool down the water a bit, not ice cold but far from tepid either.

    As for the burnays, when we visited Vigan, I bought some elaborately decorated vases which I have no clue if my sister still have them or the kids have successfully chipped or broken them.

  12. My mother wants one of these for Christmas. She remembers cooking in them when she was young. But…where do I get one in the US? Is there a website that sells these? Please help!

  13. I enjoyed viewing the clapot-making in Vigan as shown here. Thanks to the one responsible. For weeks, I have been asking around where I can get my hands on a claypot-making machine; or who can mae one for me, and for how much? Also, where can I buy claypot water vessel with the traditional small faucet?

  14. For anybody who may know it:
    I want to buy a clay casserole medio – big size within january 9.I stay in Metro Manila. Pls., let me know where can i buy it.My e.mail: crimasor@gmail.com
    09295631476
    Thank you.

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