Pampanga’s deep historical and cultural roots become palpable as soon as you start the tour. For hundreds of years, the province has fed the growing city of Manila, which helped create the modest Spanish colony into a bustling city. Pampanga became prosperous as well.
And so the Kapampangan started appreciating the finer things in life. They built beautiful buildings and homes, and created wonderful dishes, all steeped in tradition and meaning.
One person who fully knows Pampanga cuisine is Atching Lillian Borromeo, regarded as the queen of heirloom Kapampangan recipes. Her knowledge of her native town’s food is astounding. But she has one gift that many Kapampangan chefs and cooks lack—she knows how to pass on to others what she has gained.
In some of my writings about traditional foods, it is often sad to find out from the locals that the recipe had not been documented and has already been forgotten; that the manang or elder woman who knew how to properly cook it has passed away.
But Atching Lillian readily tells all her guests how she cooks her dishes and delicacies.
San Nicolas cookies
Her most fun and interesting cooking demonstration is for San Nicolas cookies. It is held in her Kusinang Matua, or Old Kitchen. It is filled with old clay pots and bronze pans, all still used by Atching.
The open-air kitchen is filled with all the tools and ancient “gadgets” used during the Spanish colonial period. There are tools for everything, from special molds to use in making empanada, to a double-layered, charcoal clay pot oven to simultaneously cook pastries.
The antique cookie molds for Atching’s San Nicolas cookies are a wonder to behold. She explains that each family and town in Pampanga has their own special cookie molds, with their own family crests etched into them. She has collected some of the rarer molds and uses them to produce her delectable San Nicolas cookies.
The cookies were crunchy but soft enough to melt in your mouth. They were not too sweet, with the flavors of butter and hints of uraro blending in.
But before we munched on the San Nicolas cookies, Atching fed us a Kapampangan feast for lunch. We started with Pako Salad (fresh fiddlehead fern salad), the crisp vegetable with salted egg and vinaigrette a perfect starter to whet our appetite.
And then we dove into the buffet. Atching’s version of the Guagua Longganisa was delectable. I paired it with spicy vinegar.
But there was more: Boneless Bobotong Asan, or stuffed milkfish cooked in alagaw leaves, dinuguan, disig, morcon, adobong puti, and finally bringhe, the Kapampangan version of Arroz Valencia which is a Spanish dish similar to paella.
Bringhe is made by cooking glutinous rice with coconut milk and luyang dilaw or turmeric. Chorizo, hard-boiled eggs and other toppings are added. It is then covered with banana leaves until fully cooked. We savored it to the last morsel.
Dessert was Brazo de Mais, a variant of Brazo de Mercedes but with bits of corn in it; and Tibok Tibok, a pudding made with fresh carabao’s milk. Its name, which means heartbeat, comes from how the pudding starts to bubble and heave, a sign that it is already cooked.
While eating, Atching delighted us with more stories of cooking and relishing Kapampangan cuisine.
Atching Lillian, tel. 9660211 and 0915-7730788.
A hike to Mt. Pinatubo was a fun-filled adventure. Our impression was, it would be an easy stroll, that the 4×4 truck was only for show, to give a feeling of coolness and novelty. How wrong we were!
Upon crossing the grassy borders, we found ourselves in the midst of the remnants of the volcanic eruption. The 4×4 truck was a necessity to cross this rough and untamed valley.
Twenty-two years since Pinatubo spewed fire and sent lahar streaming down its slopes, we saw how nature doesn’t stop changing. The lake in the mountain has been transforming the landscape itself, water trickling downwards.
The 4×4 struggled going down the steep path, passing through newly formed rivers, crossing through rushing waters like in a safari documentary.
The stark beauty of the huge cliffs surrounding us was entrancing. Stalagmites were also seen clustered in the white lahar mountain cliffs. Made by the rains, these lahar stalagmites lent a sense of awe and otherworldliness while going up the hiking point.
After an hour of intense offroad travel, we arrived at the first camp of the hiking tour.
The first few kilometers were fairly easy, but walking became difficult as we got near the top. The moonlike path of the hike slowly transformed into streams with rocks of various colors—some were clay red, others bright yellow due to the sulfur in the mountain streams.
About a kilometer away from the crater top, the scene morphed into a Zen-like garden with lush greenery and cascading streams that flowed into cool and crystal-clear pools.
At the crater top, we were treated to a magnificent view of the crater lake. The still, turquoise water was surrounded by a wall of mountains.
Hikers usually go down the lake to take in the view more intimately. They then take lunch at the crater top; tables and huts are provided by the local tourist authorities.
The entire hike took some two hours over a distance of six kilometers.
Back in Pampanga proper, hunger pangs led us to a Kapampangan culinary institution, the homey Everybody’s Cafe.
Owner Pocholo Jorolan helped us appreciate his restaurant’s signature dishes: Betute, fried frog stuffed with ground pork, very delicious; Camaru, fried cricket; Pindang Damulag, carabao jerky; Fried Hito paired with mustasa; and the famous Morcon.
Shopping, entertainment center
SM Pampanga, which opened in 2000, has become the Kapampangan center of shopping and leisure in recent years.
The mall also plays host to many homegrown food outlets, ready to satisfy the discriminating Kapampangan palate.
A true product of Kapampangan entrepreneurship and ingenuity, Nathaniel’s started out as a small family venture. Housewife Nelly Co sold homemade siomai and siopao to her friends and neighbors out of the family garage.
Customers who loved the products looked for more varieties, which goaded Nelly to whip up her now famous buko salad. It is now a favorite takeout item among visitors.
Since opening in 1994, Nathaniel’s has moved its operations from the garage to San Fernando’s main business center in 2005.
It has also expanded, opening shops in Central Luzon and Metro Manila.
Partyland offers buffet lunch or dinner for about P200—featuring authentic, delicious Kapampangan fare. Balut a la Pobre is our favorite.
But it changes its buffet menu daily, so no two daily menus are the same.
Luring’s is another homegrown Kapampangan restaurant. It serves Sisig, Kare Kare, Lechon, Tidtad and more.
Traditional parol-maker and renowned Filipino craftsman Rolando Quiambao, owner of RolRen’s Lantern and General Merchandise, has his own stall fronting the mall every Christmas.
With the newly opened Skyranch Pampanga, mall guests can now add another reason to visit SM Pampanga.
Skyranch has the tallest Ferris wheel in the country, the Pampanga Eye. It consists of 32 individually airconditioned gondolas, built on a 65-meter tall Ferris wheel.
Skyranch Pamapanga sits right beside the mall—10,000 square meters of land filled with many attractions for the young and the young at heart—bump cars, two-tiered carousels, roller coasters and other fun rides.
The park also has games like basketball, shooting galleries, ring toss, bowling and darts.
Still growing and innovating, SM Pampanga is said to be the longest mall in the Philippines, consisting of four connected buildings. Its expansion is proof of Pampanga’s dynamic economy.
As an offshoot of SM Pampanga’s success, a new mall, the seven-story SM City San Fernando Downtown was built in the heart of the town’s heritage district.