Let's take it from the top: Atching Lillian's Heirloom Recipes - Romancing the Past Through Traditional Calutong Capampangan (Kapampangan Cooking) is a great book for any collection of Filipino food book titles. It's a wonderful example of documented regional cooking.
Between detailed descriptions of local plants used by cooks in the province of Pampanga and an overview of the province's geographical features (including rich marine habitats along its shorelines and interior volcanic landscapes), you get a pretty good sense of why Kapampangan cooks are some of the country's most sought-after culinary captains.
Kapampangans (or the people of Pampanga) have built a regional cuisine recognized across the Philippines as one of the best. Over centuries, they've established a distinct style of cooking - intensely savoury with a delightful dose of sweet - that the folks of Pampanga have brought to the rest of the country through dishes they've cooked from home.
Whether an umami-rich marriage of fermented fish and rice, or the spun sugar crunch atop a delicate meringue, well-executed Kapampangan meals are an affair to remember.
A cast of seasons
One of the things I particularly loved about this book were its chapters divided by the seasons as farmers know them: kauran (rainy days), pamamupul (harvest season), kaledo (summer) and pamananaman (planting season). It's a brilliant way of showcasing the diversity in regional Philippine cooking by way of the agricultural activities performed within each season, and the array of fruits, vegetables and grains harvested year-round. Wild game, livestock and seafood reach their peak at different times of the year, too - contributing to a library of dishes prepared according to ingredient seasonality.
Who is Atching Lillian?
Wouldn't you love to have grown up in Atching Lillian's kitchen? Time has rendered many traditional practices inefficient for today's small, indoor kitchens, but proper technique paired with bold flavours will always have a place in Filipino cooking.
"I am very fortunate to have been born into a family that has a high regard for culture and a hereditary passion for cooking," Lillian Borromeo, a.k.a. Atching Lillian, writes. "For us, preparing food is both tradition and art. Our family's kitchen secrets, skills and utensils are passed on from generation to generation serving as priceless heirlooms, to ensure that every dish prepared maintains its authentic Capampangan taste."
Atching Lillian was born and raised in a society very different from what I - and I imagine, most of us reading this - know, though sixty odd years isn't really much time. Lillian was the only girl amongst four siblings, her father a family doctor and mother from a lineage of Kapampangan women trained under one Imang Charing Ocampo, known for "training many future housewives of great Capampangan homes" (including those of sugar barons, hacienda owners and two future Philippine presidents). Lillian wanted to be a doctor but was pushed into a degree for home economics; later, as a home economics instructor, the book conveys that her father "offered to match her salary provided she continued her cooking studies," leading to the end of Lillian's teaching career.
This was, then, a time where "Capampangan women were relegated to the kitchen and their only role in life was to serve their families," Lillian writes. "Their typical day consisted of being in the kitchen meticulously planning and preparing their family's meals." Lillian attended Catholic boarding schools under supervision of Spanish nuns, of which she shares, "the young ladies known as internas were taught religion, languages, music, painting, poetry, dance, social conduct and culinary skills."
It may seem an antiquated notion today, but Lillian's daily tasks as a young woman - her cooking, especially, belonging to a level reserved for aristocratic families - honed the skills she needed to excel at advanced baking and cooking classes, still only sparsely taken by women of the time.
Tastes: the "odd"
Another thing to address off the top - yes, the canon of Kapampangan cooking includes such dishes as burung bulig (mudfish fermented in rice), betute tugak (stuffed frogs), tidtad itik (duck stewed in its blood), arobung camaru (mole cricket adobo) and arobung kabag (fruit bat adobo), calderetang barag (spicy monitor lizard stew) and bistig utak babi (pig's brain stewed in vinegar and garlic). Yes, kubang asu (sweet and spicy dog stew) also exists. But calling these odd is akin to stating my culinary (and cultural) awareness hasn't gone past the ninth grade - these dishes were borne of the need to feed, to utilize every edible resource around while the war for independence rendered Pampanga's fields barren, with fields of produce set alight at night and towering silos of rice emptied into muddy paddies. Kapampangans made do, and they stamped their cuisine with a fierce pride in self-sufficiency - keeping in mind these foods had to last long (as seen in vinegar-based adobo-like stews), feed entire families (as frogs or fruit bats cut into pieces meant everyone got a share) and contain nutrition where food supply was limited (seen where fiddlehead ferns, mustard tops and a leafy herb known as bulung Bonifacio feature prominently in Kapampangan cooking).
Cucinang matua: the "old kitchen"
Outside Atching Lillian's bale maragul (stone house), "chickens are just in the backyard and the kuat duldul (mushrooms) are sprouting everywhere," she writes. Backyard plants such as cundol (winter melon), camias (a sour relative of carambola), kature (bitter leaves from trees planted to 'watch over' Kapampangan homes) and tangle (young leaves added to dishes such as paksiw and bopis) grow abundantly as in the rest of Pampanga's countryside.
Inside, the setting for Atching Lillian's Cucina Matua is described as follows:
"The ground is covered with old mosaic earthen bricks of ladrillo and baldosa flooring. The old kitchen contains batibut chairs, an old banggera (wooden table) and lansena (kitchen cabinet) on the open sides.
Old pots and pans ranging from the local earthen jars of kuran, banga and balanga are neatly placed on top of the dalikan [with] various china and porcelain jars, plates, bowls, tatso brass pans, tsokolatera and batirul (brass pitcher and wooden stirrer), sanduc bican (wooden ladles), rolling pins and Saniculas cookie molds.
Other collections include native stoves and ovens like kalang dutung and pugon (earthen oven), kudkuran ngungut (coconut grater fixed atop a small wooden bench), salikap and igu (woven panning baskets) and bitse."
I don't even know what half of the italics in the passage above are, but I'm certainly curious to find out!
Tastes: the downright delicious (and savoury)
On to Atching Lillian's resetas, or recipes, of which she writes "for a province known for its culinary tradition, Pampanga has surprisingly few books written about its cuisine."
Pampanga boasts a panoply of signature dishes, including sizzling sisig (seasoned broiled pig ears, with a short history here), bringhe (see Atching Lillian prepare this Philippine version of paella here) and burung asan (mudfish or tilapia salt-fermented in rice).
Less known are bulanglang itu (catfish sinigang with guava and taro) and burung talangka (where female crabs are salted overnight and all its delicious fat is carefully extracted and sauteed with garlic, over rice) from its rivers; quisa (steamed rice with corn, peanuts, peas or sweet potatoes) and binulung manok (chicken cooked over coals in hollowed green bamboo) from its fields; agredulcing babi (sweet and sour pork), quilo (Pampanga's take on kilawin or ceviche, here made with goat meat) and pindang damulag (preserved carabao or water buffalo meat, similar to jerky) from its pastures.
Kapampangans have a crazy sweet tooth
Sweets and desserts loved by Kapampangans include sinantan (a sticky treat made of glutinous rice flour balls, sago starch balls, sweet potatoes, jackfruit and saba bananas, thickened with first-press coconut milk), tocino del cielo (popularly dubbed "bacon from heaven", though really a custard flan of egg yolks, butter and caramel) and the venerable dulce prenda (or hopiang Kapampangan, an arrowroot flour and coconut milk pastry filled with sweetened winter melon, thick carabao milk and egg yolks flavoured with the rind of dayap citrus).
Pampanga's panecillos de San Nicolas (or Saniculas cookies) are considered one of the oldest in the Philippines; Augustinian friars are said to have brought the recipe with them as they settled in Pampanga in the 16th century. The crisp pastry was "declared by the friars as deliverance from tempest, floods, famine, fire, pestilence and other calamities"; no wonder people latched onto them! Made with arrowroot flour and coconut milk, Saniculas cookies are pressed into carved wooden moulds, with incredibly detailed engravings of religious iconography. (As an aside, I first learned of Atching Lillian because of an article on the heirloom Saniculas cookie moulds she kept and uses to this day.) I learned prominent families in Pampanga commissioned special moulds for their cookies; the Lansangan family of musicians had moulds outlined with a harp, the Hizon landowners a leaf design.
Mangan tana! (Let's eat!)
This may be the longest blog post I've written, certainly the longest of my book reviews. I couldn't stop once I got to it, and there's so much more about Kapampangan cooking I'd love to explore.
This book is far from perfect - typographical errors abound, some ingredients go missing from a recipe's procedure, and actual instructions are SPARSE, to say the least.
But, that overshadows everything I learned about Pampanga's culinary make-up and history. I wish I travelled to Pampanga a lot more as a young adult.
I guess it's never too late!