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 full Pampanga food and culture experience requires a hired driver and a knowledgeable escort like Bryan Ocampo, son of a Kapampangan and the creator of the Mangan Kapampangan tour.
Bryan's tour visits towns that represent the essence of Pampanga's food culture; his guests visit three different towns to eat three full meals 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."
Foreign Influences, Adopted and Transformed
In a process called "indigenization", dishes brought in by foreign conquerors (like Spanish friars) or traders (like Chinese merchants) were gradually transformed to suit local ingredients and tastes.
Local cooks improvised on these imported culinary notions for generations, 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.
Breakfast at Guagua Town
The tour’s first stop, the town of Guagua, was mostly buried by a volcanic eruption in 1991. Much of the town's original infrastructure remains buried ten feet deep.
The residents have simply and stoically 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 sweetish pork sausage known as a favorite local breakfast dish, served with egg and fried rice.
The first stop, Lapid's Bakery, obliges us with all this, plus chicharon (pork crackling), fried bangus (milkfish), súman bulagtâ (glutinous 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 broiled for four hours inside Lapid's ancient 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. "Even after two days, the skin is still crunchy," Bryan tells us.
Another Guagua establishment introduces us to another gift of the Spanish, the crispy pork crackling snack known locally as chicharon. Galan's Chicharon 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.
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.
Ocampo Lansang's Cashew Turrones
The last stop at Guagua is a ten-minute drive to the neighboring town of Santa Rita, famous for 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.
Locals substituted almonds for another nut that grew in abundance nearby, the cashew (kasoy), then added a wrapping of edible rice paper that gives the turrones the appearance of large, angular hand-rolled cigarettes.
Bryan sees turrones de kasoy as a metaphor 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.
We next drive down to Bacolor, a town that may have been the worst-hit by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption.
Its location, smack in the middle of a natural catchbasin, pooled millions of tons of mudflow and lahar. Bacolor Church lies buried twenty feet deep in mud and volcanic ash, its belfry tilted by the massive volumes of lahar that inundated Bacolor two decades ago.
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 - 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.
The interior of the church, formerly forty feet high from floor to ceiling, has been reduced by exactly half. (The church's ceiling has been ripped out to give the interior a little more headroom.) Present-day churchgoers now enter through what used to be the church's upper windows.
By the time you 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. No walk-ins are allowed at "Atching" (big sister) Lillian's home in the town of Mexico, Pampanga, now a heritage restaurant known as Kusina ni Atching Lillian.
Groups who reserve in advance get a buffet of exceedingly traditional Kapampangan fare: brínghi, an adaptation of paella with the novel addition of coconut 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.
At the Cusinang Matua (old kitchen), guests are treated to 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.
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 use carabao to till their fields; where rice fields are abundant (as in Pampanga), so is carabao milk.
Carreon's makes ample use of egg yolk in its products, too – a hangover from the Spanish days, when churches were built using a mortar made of sand, limestone and egg white. The townsfolk used the leftover egg yolk in a wide repertoire of yolk-based desserts.
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.
Angeles City's Church
From Magalang, the bustling city of Angeles is a 30-minute drive away. Angeles grew prosperous through its long 20th-century association with the nearby Clark Air Base formerly run by the US Air Force.
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.
The old town center surrounding the Church 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 Pampanga's wide-ranging culinary scene, from heirloom kitchen implements to history books to reproductions of artwork depicting Pampanga's food products.
The last stop is 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.
The Kapampangan use of frogs and crickets dates back to the days when Spanish forced labor had stripped Pampanga of its farmers. "The shortage of menfolk caused a famine," Bryan says. “So the ladies had to be resourceful - they resorted to frogs, to the mole cricket, to get by."