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WELCOME TO Iloilo. Forget your diet.

This was the cheery welcome from no less than Mayor Jerry Treñas, when select press were invited by the Iloilo Economic Development (ILED) Foundation to a weekend tour of the city and neighboring island-province Guimaras.

As it turned out, he wasn?t just joking. Wherever we went, the genteel Ilonggos lavished us with the chief beauty?and for the weight-watchers among us, the major bane?of their province: The food.

Here are the treats you shouldn?t miss out on for a genuine, manamit Iloilo experience.

Sweet surrender

With the province renowned as the land of sugar barons, Ilonggo delicacies are as much a legacy as the heritage architecture along the city?s Calle Real.

There?s the traditional baked sweets from the Spanish era: Barquillos, cylindrical wafers; biscocho, sugared toasted bread; banadas, sugar cookies glazed with icing; galletas, thin milk biscuits. And those are just the most popular.

In Iloilo, local bakeries such as Panaderia de Molo, Biscocho Haus and Tinapayan are establishments, their products in export-ready packages. Local brands converge at groceries or in pasalubong shops such as Deco?s on Valeria Street near SM Delgado.

For homemade cookies with local flavors, like pinipig crunchies and mango chewies, try Mama?s Kitchen, brainchild of Corona Villanueva-de Leon, located on Osmena St., Arevalo district. While there, take a sneak peek at Ilonggo?s weaving legacy, at the generations-old piña, jusi and hablon sinamay dealership upstairs, run by her mother, Cecilia Villanueva.

Tsokolate and kakanin also abound, but they?re best home-cooked and partaken in a warm, homey atmosphere. For that, we dropped by at the neighboring home of Luth and Gerard Camiña, the Avanceña family?s ornate, vintage-furnished 1865 bahay-na-bato. Their recipe for tsokolate: Homegrown cocoa beans, ground and mixed with Alpine milk, slow-cooked in a cast-iron tsokolatera, stirred with a guava batidor and served with ibus and sweet mangoes.

With Iloilo being tagged as a ?new wave? city, and with four SM outlets and call centers like Teletech giving rise to a growing yuppie culture, Ilonggos have also adapted to the cosmopolitan sweet tooth. At Smallville, the local version of Eastwood, perk up with the colorful fruit panna cottas at Amalfi, or ease down with a warm gourmet apple tea at Coffee Break, both owned by young entrep Johnny Que; or cap your night with drinks and dancing at Bourbon Street.

Also located in Smallville is Freska. The sharpest memory I have of our first night in Iloilo was the creamy, mocha-colored butterscotch gelato served in coconut husk with barquillo as scoop, courtesy of Freska?s chef Pauline Gorriceta-Banusing.

Meat-ing Iloilo

Freska?s authentic Ilonggo cuisine comes from recipes passed down from old families in Iloilo, Gorriceta-Banusing said.

With the province located along the coasts of Panay Island, much of the meal prepared consisted of seafood. Some of them were indigenous marine species: Grilled diwal (angel-wing shellfish) and a flavorful grilled managat (mangrove jack or Visayan snapper).

Marrying traditional savor with modern style, kinilaw na tanuige (vinegar-marinated mackerel), a sour and sweet delight, was also served in shot glasses, while the chicken binakol (chicken broth with sweet coconut) was served in a coconut bowl, like a tropical drink.

Grilled dishes and seafood, however, are best eaten at coastal restaurants, kamayan-style, suggested our historical and cultural tour guide Eugene Jamerlan of the Heritage Council. The locals? choice seems to be Tatoy?s Manukan along Villa Beach in Arevalo, which started with only three tables in 1975, but is now a compound on its way to three pavilions, including huts. The success is largely due to the house specialties. Word has it that owner Honorato Espinosa used to pay rent with a lechon manok daily until he was able to buy the property. The native chicken inasal, grilled squid, fat shrimps and salty imbao (mangrove clam) soup are likewise good enough to be currency.

For a more high-end dining experience, nearby is Breakthrough, serving the meatiest lobsters and crabs. There?s also the dangerously delicious aligue (crab fat) rice, which should always be mixed with plain rice, else ?you?d be dizzy with instant high blood by the end of the meal,? Lea Lara of ILED warned.

The breezy seaside is also an ideal venue for having another Visayan staple, pork?in all manners of preparation, whether as lechon, kadios-baboy-langka/KBL or liempo.

The Iloilo central market is a treasure trove of all the marine delicacies the Visayan seas can offer. There you can find guinamos (dry bagoong) and dried fish, fish bones and squid, which you can apparently fry and eat like crackers. While the dizzying array of fresh seafood may easily excite Manileños, Jamerlan advised that you haggle your way down the possibly jacked-up prices.

Finally, Ilonggos will not let you leave until you?ve tried authentic la paz batchoy, which you can also have at Deco?s, one of its pioneers. The eatery has been around since pre-World War II, starting out as a stall, eventually expanding into a resto and shop, now branching out all the way to Metro Manila at Alphaland, Magallanes, second-generation owner Federico Guillergan Jr. said.

Fresh fruits

While Iloilo city banks on old class and a burgeoning cosmopolitan culture, Guimaras, a 15-minute pumpboat ride away, offers its rustic charm, agri-eco-tourism and its world-famous mangoes, hailed in the Guinness Book of Records as the sweetest. This is due to the limestone content in the island soil, which is ideal for the trees, Jamerlan said.

The Guimaras mangoes are almost sacred: The locals protect it by barring visitors from bringing in mangoes from elsewhere to avoid foreign pestilences. It?s proven to be an effective strategy. Even with the adverse effects of climate change, 60 percent of the produce still pass international export standards, said Governor Felipe Hilan Nava.

Aside from mangoes, you?ll find ube, cashews, pineapples, bananas, guavas?fresh at the Sunday market, or dried, prepared as jam or jelly, mixed as juice or even ketchup. Guimaras tourism staff even suggest using mangoes as white sauce for pasta.

All Guimaras products converge at the GTIC pasalubong shop across the provincial capitol, or you can visit the Trappist Monastery, where Benedictine monks grow fruit trees and sell preservatives.

And if you think it?s not worth going to Western Visayas just for the mangoes, keep in mind that in the US, according to Nava, they?re willing to pay a dollar a piece for them. Meanwhile, according to Luth Camina, the sweetest mangoes in the world are only P50 per kilo in Leon, Iloilo.

As the weekend proved, there?s really only one way to take in Western Visayas. And that is through your gullet. It wasn?t meant to be a culinary tour, but judging from the omnipresent pasalubong boxes of our co-passengers on the plane, it would seem every visit to Iloilo and Guimaras is a heavy-duty food trip. Bring an extra bag, or better yet, a balikbayan box. You?ll be sure to bring the flavors home.

Cebu Pacific flies daily from Manila to Iloilo. Log on to http://cebupacificair.com to book in advance for Iloilo?s Dinagyang festival in January, which will include a food fest.