Hailed as the “Culinary Capital of the Philippines”, a gustatory toud of Pampanga is a must for any serious food lover.
Written by Janelle Año
Photographed by Yam Otarra
Additional photos by Pampanga’s Best and Nathaniel’s
After all, no one takes food more seriously than the Kapampangans, who have seemingly built a cult around food. In Philippine Food and Life, Gilda Cordero-Fernando writes: “The dining room of the ancestral Pampanga house was twice as large as its sala. There was a kilometric table that could expand, with the addition of half-moons to the ends, to seat from 20 to 30 guests, for no other province lavishes so much attention on food or cooks so well.”
Eager to experience a taste of Kapampangan cuisine for ourselves, we headed over to Ayala Marquee Mall (located along the NLEX) for their annual Big Bite Northern Food Festival last October. The food festival gathered over one hundred twenty concessionaires selling produce and food from the different Northern provinces. The first day of the festival culminated in a giant sisig cooking demo, where chefs labored over a 10-ft wide kawa of sisig! After the program, we asked Ayala Marquee Mall’s Raf Quiambao to tour us around “The Local Strip,” a row of restaurants and shops gathering the most famous and sought-after Kapampangan delicacies under one roof.
Our first stop was Apag Marangle, a restaurant famous among tourists for offering a “farm-like” dining experience. Apag Marangle’s first and largest branch is located in Bacolor, Pampanga, right in the middle of a farm. The mall branch does its best to recreate the original branch’s rustic setting: although nondescript from the outside, the restaurant looks like a giant nipa hut on the inside, with a small forest of indoor plants to complete the bahay-kubo theme!
Apag Marangle was also where most of those in our group got their first taste of exotic Kapampangan cuisine. Pampanga, being a rice producing region, has its fair share of camaru or mole crickets that reside in rice fields. Although considered by most Westerners as pests, mole crickets are actually a delicacy eaten in several parts of Eastern Asia. In Pampanga, camaru is usually cooked adobo-style (simmered in vinegar) before being fried to a crisp. Apag Marangle’s version has crispy camaru sautéed with garlic, onions, and tomatoes. It may look revolting, but don’t be afraid—pop one into your mouth and you’ll be pleasantly surprised! It’s crunchy with a pleasing meaty taste; most first timers actually do not realize that they are eating mole crickets until they are told so. By then, they are usually too hooked on this delicious pulutan to care.
Another popular Kapampangan delicacy which Apag Marangle also serves is betute, or frogs stuffed with a meat filling. Since betute wasn’t available that day, we settled for barbecued frogs. (And yes, it tasted like chicken.) After our meal, we tried a little bit of everything from the other shops in The Local Strip. In keeping with Kapampangan tradition, no meal is complete without dessert!
Another home business that made it big, Pampanga’s Best started in 1967 when Lolita Hizon helped her neighbor, a meat vendor, cure his unsold pork. She made it into tocino and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Pampanga’s Best is sold in most supermarkets and offers a variety of products like bacon, embutido, and longganisa.
While Nathaniel’s started out selling siopao and siomai, they are actually famous for their buko pandan salad, which both tourists and locals happily line up for. Founded in 1994 by housewife Nelly Co, Nathaniel’s started as a small home business. Nelly would make dimsum by hand and sell it to neighbors, friends, and family out of her family’s garage. Word soon spread about her delicious siopao and siomai, and when Nelly came up with her buko pandan salad, the orders just kept pouring in. Eighteen years later, Nathaniel’s buko pandan salad—not too sweet but also rich and creamy, with lots of buko strips—remains unrivalled.
Another well-loved Kapampangan delicacy is Kabigting’s halo-halo. Unlike regular halo-halo with a medley of toppings and ingredients, Kabigting’s keeps it simple with only shaved ice, fresh carabao’s milk, corn, mashed white beans, and sweet, milky pastillas. Although it only has a few ingredients, it’s as much fun to eat, and just as delicious, as the everything-on-it halo-halo that we’re used to. Kabigting’s proves that it’s true: sometimes less is more.
Named after the kuliat, a type of tree that is abundant in Angeles, Kuliat’s bite-size empanadas are just the thing to satisfy midday cravings. Rounder, larger, and fluffier than most mini-em¬panadas, the crust is flaky and buttery, and the fillings generous. Kuliat is also popular for their affordable pasalubong like brownies, cupcakes, and cassava cakes.
Our last stop was Susie’s Cuisine, long considered a pasalubong mecca by tourists and locals. Susie’s is most famous for their homemade kakanin, such as the Kapampangan delicacy tibok-tibok (creamy carabao’s milk pudding topped with latik). We also brought home some San Nicolas cookies, which are cookies made with arrowroot flour, sugar, eggs, and sometimes coconut milk. The dough is pressed into a wooden mold with intricate designs of religious icons. These “saint’s biscuits” were believed to have healing powers, and were crumbled, mixed with water, then given to sick people.