A Mouthwatering Food Tour of the Philippines' Pampanga Province

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    A Road Trip Through the Philippines' Culinary and Cultural Riches

    Left to right: interior of Betis Church, a plateful of rice and Pampanga delicacy sisig
    ••• Left to right: interior of Betis Church, a plateful of rice and Pampanga delicacy sisig. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    Set only two hours' drive north of the Philippines' capital of Manila, the province of Pampanga provides a fascinating glimpse into the nation's cultural and culinary life. Citizens of Pampanga (called Kapampangan) were long loyal to the Spanish conquistadores, and even today, the architecture, food, and way of life in Pampanga remains closely tied to the old Iberian way of doing things... with a twist.

    The province covers about 840-plus square miles of fertile rice-growing plains that lie in the shadow of two mountains - the extinct volcano Mount Arayat to the east, and the slumbering Mount Pinatubo to the west. (The latter erupted in 1991, killing hundreds and inundating several Pampanga towns in mudflow; many Pampanga towns' main landmarks remain half-buried to this day.)

    Out-of-towners without private transportation will find it almost impossible to travel between Pampanga's widely-spaced towns. The full Pampanga food and culture experience requires a hired driver...MORE and a knowledgeable escort like Bryan Ocampo, son of a Kapampangan and the creator of the Mangan Kapampangan tour (mangankapampangan.com).

    Bryan's tour visits towns that represent the essence of Pampanga's food culture; his guests enjoy three full meals, served in three different towns, that showcase "the typical, the traditional, and the exotic," as Bryan explains. "These three things give a whole picture of the Kapampangan cuisine. The tour integrates all in one go while visiting all these nice historical places."

    Next: Filipino Food - Foreign Influences, Adopted and Transformed

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  • 02 of 13

    Filipino Food - Foreign Influences, Adopted and Transformed

    Images of Pampanga Philippines food
    ••• Left, top to bottom: Carreon's plantanillas, Everybody's Café morkon; center: the buffet spread at Atching Lillian's; right, top to bottom: sisig, jars of crab fat. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    What is commonly accepted as "Filipino" food, upon closer inspection, turns out to be a Spanish or Chinese original given a spin by nameless generations of Kapampangan cooks. In a process called "indigenization", dishes brought in by foreign conquerors or traders were gradually transformed to suit local ingredients and tastes.

    Pious Catholic Kapampangans were often entrusted by visiting Spanish friars with the recipes to their favorite dishes. And Chinese refugees from Spanish persecution in Manila settled in Pampanga, then taught their favorite Chinese dishes to their Filipino wives.

    These imported culinary notions underwent a process of improvisation, eventually creating "a new dish that in time becomes so entrenched in the native cuisine and lifestyle that its origins are practically forgotten," wrote the late Filipino food writer Doreen Fernandez. "In the Philippines the process starts with a foreign element and ends with a dish that can truly be called...MORE part of Philippine cuisine." (Source)

    Pampanga was the perfect place for these influences to come to fruition. Through the years of Spanish occupation, Kapampangans were on intimate terms with both Iberian conquerors and Chinese traders. The province's rich soil and wildlife provided plenty of raw material for experimentation. And the Kapampangans were naturals in the kitchen.

    Next: A Filipino Breakfast at Guagua Town

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  • 03 of 13

    A Filipino Breakfast at Guagua Town - Typical but not Ordinary

    Filipino breakfast at Guagua, Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Clockwise from left: suman bulagta, longganisang Guagua, a plate of rice, scrambled egg and lechon pugon. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    The first stop on Bryan Ocampo's tour illustrates how Kapampangan food has become the standard for Filipino cuisine; he takes us to a table spread filled with native Pampanga dishes that the rest of the Philippines now claims for its own.

    The town of Guagua has seen better days. Before Mount Pinatubo exploded in 1991, Guagua was a moderately successful trading post. Post-Pinatubo, much of the town's original infrastructure remains buried ten feet deep; the residents have simply built on top of the old buildings and carried on as before, though trade remains a shadow of its former self.

    Luckily for us, the local food scene remains as robust as ever. Guagua is famous for its lóngganísang Guagua, a diminutive homemade pork sausage known for its sweetness. Longganisa is a favorite breakfast dish in the Philippines, served with egg and fried rice. Our first stop, Lapid's Bakery, obliges us with all this, plus chicharon (pork crackling), fried bangus (milkfish), súman bulagtâ (gluti...MOREnous rice cakes cooked with coconut milk and sugar), and a particularly thick and rich hot chocolate drink laced with crushed peanuts.

    The real star of the show is the lechón pugón - slices of pork belly that had earlier undergone four hours of broiling inside Lapid's antiquated brick oven, locally known as a pugón. The lechon's crisp skin and sinfully fatty flesh crunch and squish blissfully in the mouth; every bite betrays the flavor of utterly fresh pork. Oven-broiling seems to do wonders for the pork belly's staying power - "Even after two days, the skin is still crunchy," Bryan tells us.

    • Lapid's Bakery
      Guagua, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps

    Next: Galan's Chicharon - Deep Fried to Perfection

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  • 04 of 13

    Galan's Chicharon - Pork Crackling, Deep Fried to Perfection

    Chicharon cooking at Galan's in Guagua, Pampanga; the finished product
    ••• Chicharon cooking at Galan's in Guagua, Pampanga; the finished product. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    Another Guagua establishment introduces us to another gift of the Spanish, the crispy pork crackling snack known locally as chicharon. Galan's in Guagua makes its own chicharon in a couple of massive deep-frying vats in the back; the finished product is sold up front in a variety of sizes, alongside sausages and jars of the papaya-based relish known as achara.

    Chicharon is a popular "beer match" in the Philippines, often consumed by groups of friends as they swig their San Miguel Beers. (Read our guide to drinking in the Philippines.)

    • Galan's Chicharon
      Guagua, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 930 652 1787

    Next: Betis Church - A Catholic Labor of Love

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  • 05 of 13

    Betis Church - A Catholic Labor of Love

    Betis Church, Pampanga Philippines from the outside and inside
    ••• Betis Church from the outside (top) and inside (bottom). Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    Food aside, the town of Guagua is also famous for its woodcarvers, some of whom have gained renown far from the Philippines. The highway between San Fernando and Guagua is lined with shops selling carved furniture and santo (statues of saints), all produced by local artisans.

    The pinnacle of the local carver's craft can be seen at the Betis Church in Guagua, a stone-and-concrete edifice dedicated to Santiago de Matamoros, the same namesake as Manila's Fort Santiago. The present church dates back to the 1770s, but the interior artwork was mainly done in the 1890s and 1970s.  

    The impressive dome immediately over the church's altar - a magnificent trompe l'oeil masterpiece known as "The Genesis and the Apocalypse" - was painted by Guagua native Victor Ramos in the 1980s. The heavy wooden doors bear intricate carvings depicting Jacob's dream of angels descending from heaven.

    • Parish Church of St. James the Apostle
      Betis, Guagua, Pampanga
      Location: Google...MORE Maps
      Phone: +63 45 900 0022

    Next: Ocampo Lansang's Cashew Turrones

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  • 06 of 13

    Taking a Bite out of Ocampo Lansang's Cashew Turrones

    Workers wrapping turrones de kasoy at Ocampo Lansang's Delicacies, Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Workers wrapping turrones de kasoy at Ocampo Lansang's Delicacies. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    From our last stop at Guagua, it's a ten-minute drive to the neighboring town of Santa Rita, where a cottage industry extant since the early 20th century churns out an assortment of sweet treats, chief among them a ricepaper-wrapped nougat adapted from the Spanish turron de Alicante.

    Ocampo Lansang Delicacies owes its existence to the generosity of a Spanish Dominican nun who decided to help a group of spinsters by sharing her own family's candy-making techniques from back home. As almonds (the chief ingredient of Spanish turron) are scarce in Pampanga, the ladies swapped it with another nut that grew in abundance nearby, the cashew (kasoy). 

    A second innovation made Ocampo Lansang's turrones de kasoy completely Filipino: a wrapping of edible ricepaper that gives them the appearance of large, angular hand-rolled cigarettes. The ricepaper isn't meant to be peeled off - you're supposed to eat it, paper, nougat interior and all.

    Bryan sees turrones de kasoy as a metaphor...MORE for the Kapampangan character - "They're as sweet as the cashew nougat; the rice wafer, so much like the communion host, represents the religious side of the Kapampangan," he tells us. "Sinfully good, and influenced by the Spaniards too."

    • Ocampo Lansang Delicacies
      Maglalang Street, San Jose, Santa Rita, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 45 900 0027

    Next: The Half-Buried Bacolor Church

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  • 07 of 13

    The Half-Buried Bacolor Church

    Façade and belfry of the San Guillermo Church, Bacolor, Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Façade and belfry of the San Guillermo Church, Bacolor, Pampanga. Image © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    From the town of Santa Rita, we drive down to Bacolor, a town that may have been the worst-hit by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption. Its main landmark, a massive stone church dedicated to San Guillermo, lies half-buried in the center of town, its belfry tilted slightly by the massive volumes of lahar that inundated Bacolor two decades ago.

    The town of Bacolor lies smack in the middle of a natural catchbasin that pooled millions of tons of mudflow and lahar; Bacolor Church itself was buried twenty feet deep in mud and volcanic ash. Digging the church out was beyond the townsfolk's abilities; the most they could do was to excavate the retablo (known elsewhere as a reredos - a decorative shelving of carved and gilded wood) and reposition it above the new floor level. The locals consider it a miracle that the newly-repositioned retablo still managed to fit exactly.

    Churchgoers now enter through what used to be the church's upper windows. The top of the church's original side windows...MORE barely peek over the new floor. And the church's ceiling has been ripped out to give the interior a little more head room. It's the best they could make of a hopeless situation: the interior of the church, formerly forty feet high from floor to ceiling, has been reduced by exactly half.

    • Bacolor Church
      174 J. Abad Santos St., Mexico, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 45 865 1930

    Next: Classic Kapampangan Fare at Atching Lillian's

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  • 08 of 13

    Classic Kapampangan Fare at Atching Lillian's

    Leisurely lunch at Atching Lillian's, Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Left, the main dining pavilion at Atching Lillian's; right, two of the establishment's bestsellers: bringhi at the top, sisig on the bottom. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    By the time we drive out of Bacolor, it's lunchtime - just the right time for a visit to Pampanga's foremost preserver of local culinary traditions, Lillian Lising-Borromeo. 

    "Atching" (big sister) Lillian's reputation precedes her: since her youth, Atching Lillian has spent her waking hours making Pampanga food, and making it famous. From books to cooking shows to seminars, Atching Lillian has done it all, in the pursuit of promoting Kapampangan cuisine to the wider world.

    Her home in the town of Mexico, Pampanga is now a heritage restaurant known as Kusina ni Atching Lillian (Big Sister Lillian's Kitchen), its open-air pavilions designed to only serve group reservations. Walk-ins are not permitted. Groups who reserve in advance get special treatment: a buffet of exceedingly traditional Kapampangan fare.

    The banquet table before us is covered with plates bearing a series of Kapampangan favorites: brínghi, an adaptation of paella with the novel addition of coconut...MORE milk; tidtad, a type of pork blood stew; sísig, the popular Kapampangan dish made up of chopped-up and stir-fried pork cheeks and head meat; and Filipino-style tamales.

    • Kusina ni Atching Lillian
      174 J. Abad Santos St., Mexico, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 45 865 1930

    Next: A Demonstration of Kapampangan Culture in the Kitchen

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  • 09 of 13

    A Demonstration of Kapampangan Culture in the Kitchen

    Atching Lillian and Bryan Ocampo demonstrating how saniculas cookies are made
    ••• Atching Lillian and Bryan Ocampo demonstrating how saniculas cookies are made. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    Atching Lillian bids us to enter her Cusinang Matua (old kitchen), an open-air pavilion that serves triple duty as a restaurant venue, a museum for Atching Lillian's collection of vintage cooking implements; and an exhibition kitchen. Guests finish their visit to Atching Lillian's with a live demonstration by the lady herself: how to make the Kapampangan biscuits known as Panecillos de San Nicolas (saniculas cookies).

    The cookies' namesake, Saint Nicholas de Tolentino, is said to have been healed of serious illness by a type of bread dipped in water. Even to the present, some believers think saniculas cookies can heal the ill and fertilize barren fields.

    To make the saniculas, Atching Lillian mixes butter, third-class flour, and milk in a bowl, blending them into a dough and rolling them out onto carved wooden molds that imprint different patterns on the dough.

    The saniculas is heavily influenced by the Chinese; these were likely adapted from biscuits like the kueh kapit cookie...MOREs made by the Chinese diaspora elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

    Next: Carreon's Carabao Milk and Egg Yolk Temptations

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  • 10 of 13

    Carreon's Carabao Milk and Egg Yolk Temptations

    Images fro Carreon's in Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Clockwise from upper left: the Carreon factory floor; a tray of plantanillas; the Carreon storefront; and pastillas de leche getting prepped for packaging. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    From Atching Lillian, it's a leisurely 30-minute drive to the town of Magalang, where Carreon’s Sweets and Pastries has been carrying on making water-buffalo-milk-based confections since the 1940s.

    Founded as "Magalang Espesyal" by Lourdes Sanchez Carreon in 1946, the establishment made use of the wide local availability of water buffalo (carabao) milk. Throughout Southeast Asia, rice farmers make wide use of the water buffalo to manage their fields; rich water buffalo milk is a pleasant byproduct of the rice farming trade. Where rice fields are abundant (as in Pampanga), so is water buffalo milk.   

    Carreon's makes ample use of egg yolk in its products, too - a hangover from the Spanish days, when churches were often built using a mortar of sand, limestone and egg white. (The Baclayon Church in Bohol is a prime example of such a church.) With so much egg yolk left over, it was inevitable that the townsfolk would develop a wide repertoire of yolk-based desserts.

    The plantan...MOREillas sold by Carreon's incorporates both prized ingredients. Each plantanilla is made up of a pastillas candy made from slow-boiled water buffalo milk, then wrapped in a crepe made from sugar and egg yolk.

    Carreon's prized plantanillas are made on a factory floor in the back, and sold at the store up front - tour guests are invited to sample and buy the wares, including water buffalo milk pastillas and ensaymada, or cheese rolls.

    • Carreon’s Sweets and Pastries
      472 San Nicolas 1, Magalang, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 45 343 4492

    Next: Angeles City's Old-School Charm

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  • 11 of 13

    Angeles City's Old-School Charm

    From Magalang, the bustling city of Angeles is a 30 minute drive away. One of the "newer" settlements in Pampanga (having been founded late in the Spanish period - in the mid-1800s), Angeles grew prosperous through its long 20th century association with the nearby Clark Air Base run by the US Air Force.

    After 1991, political opposition in Manila and the Pinatubo eruption put an end to the US military presence in the Philippines, and Angeles wandered through the wilderness for a time. The conversion of the Air Base into a Freeport Zone has put Angeles' fortunes back on the upswing - and its 19th century structures back in the spotlight.

    Angeles' old town center - with Angeles Church at its very navel - still retains a number of well-preserved 19th century structures. Across the street from the Church, we walk into the former Angeles town hall, now converted into the Museo ning Angeles.

    A "Culinarium" on the second floor of the Museo exhibits artifacts from...MORE Pampanga's wide-ranging culinary scene, from heirloom kitchen implements to history books to reproductions of artwork depicting Pampanga's food products.

    • Museo Ning Angeles
      Address: Heritage District, Santo Rosario Street, Angeles City
      Location: Google Maps

    Next: Angeles City's Church at the Crossroads of History

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    Angeles City's Church at the Crossroads of History

    Angeles Church in Pampanga, Philippines, from outside and inside
    ••• Left to right: Angeles Church's exterior with its twin steeples; altar inside the Angeles Church. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    As with most towns in devoutly Catholic Pampanga, the biggest structure in Angeles City's center is the Holy Rosary Parish Church. Completed in 1909, the church is most remarkable for its silver sun-rayed tabernacle, said to have been wrought out of the lottery winnings of one of the town's founders.

    • Holy Rosary Parish Church
      Address: Santo Rosario Street, Angeles City, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps

    Next: Exotic Eats at Everybody's Café

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  • 13 of 13

    Exotic Eats at Everybody's Café

    A selection of food from Everybody's Cafe in Pampanga, Philippines
    ••• Clockwise from upper left: betute, kamaru, tapang kalabaw, and morkon. Images © Mike Aquino, licensed to About.com

    Our last stop is a ten-minute drive away, at the provincial capital of San Fernando. Here, Everybody's Café welcomes one and all in a cozy spot that's been serving locals and visitors alike since 1946.

    Everybody's dinner spread represents what Bryan calls the "exotic" aspect of Kapampangan cooking, and it is indeed out of the ordinary. Everybody's Café served us the holy trinity of Kapampangan exotica: kamarú, or mole crickets stewed in vinegar and fried in butter; bétúte, or stuffed and fried frog; and tápang kalabáw, or sliced carabao beef.

    Alongside these rare dishes, the café served a few more conventional selections - morcón, a type of pork meatloaf embedded with cheeze, chorizo de bilbao, and duck's eggs; sinigáng na sugpô, or a tamarind-soured stew of prawns with vegetables; and léche flan, a custard made from carabao milk and lime zest.

    The Kapampangan use of frogs and crickets dates back to the days when Spanish forced labor had thinned the labor force...MORE necessary to tend the local farms. "A lot of local labor was sourced from Pampanga," Bryan tells us. "The shortage of menfolk caused a famine. So the ladies had to be resourceful - they resorted to frogs, to the mole cricket, to get by."

    By the time we leave our table at Everybody's Café, the sun is getting ready to set - Bryan was spot on in his guess that our last stop here would make a great early dinner. The trip would only end, though, at the conclusion of another two-hour drive back to Manila, which we reach after dark.

    • Everybody's Cafe
      Address: San Fernando, Del Pilar, McArthur Highway, San Fernando City, Pampanga
      Location: Google Maps
      Phone: +63 45 860 1121

    To book your own Pampanga food tour, you can reach Bryan Ocampo by visiting his Mangan Kapampangan site, or email him at bryan.ocampo@gmail.com.