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4 “Take Home” Lessons from the "Pampanga Food Trip" Edit

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Mike Aquino  • Contributor
Opinions expressed by Explora.ph Contributors are their own.

Visiting Pampanga is like taking a masterclass in what it means to be Filipino – but instead of using books, it drives the lessons home with surprising encounters with Kapampangan food, places and people.

Such a wide-ranging course won’t be possible without a fun but knowledgeable professor. Meet Mark Bryan Ocampo, whose Ultimate Pampanga Food Tour introduces you to the Philippines’ most historic province through seven towns and three full meals. (Read this Tripsavvy article for a play-by-play of Bryan’s tour – and what you can expect to see and eat as a guest.)

This class in Filipino history and culture requires no reading, only one whole day, a wide open mind and empty stomach. But you take home so, so much more than you put in, as the next few “take home” lessons show. 


Lechon de pugon and chicharon from Guagua, Pampanga. Image courtesy of Southeast Asia Time Traveler

The Kapampangan “invented” Filipino food as we know it

Mangan Tamu (“let’s eat” in Kapampangan) traces a path through Pampanga Province’s towns and major cities, diving deep into local lore and mouthwatering Kapampangan recipes at the same time.

Stops include Guagua, known for its tiny longganisa and crispy chicharon; Betis, home to master woodcarvers and a scenic church; Mexico, home to Atching Lillian’s heritage kitchen; and San Fernando, home to beloved food stop Everybody’s Cafe.

Every stop drives home a major, mind-blowing lesson: much of what we think as “Filipino” food and culture is actually Kapampangan. Homesick Chinese and Spanish ilustrados in Pampanga shared their recipes with their cooks, who adapted them to fit local ingredients and tastes.

“Without available ingredients [for foreign foods], people would have to improvise on what’s there in the land,” Bryan tells us. “And Kapampangan land is really fertile – whatever they use to improvise, it indirectly changes and transforms the dish from the original to something that’s uniquely ours.

“[I explain the] role of Kapampangan in our history and cuisine,” he explains. “We’re all about ‘national’ this and ‘national’ that, ‘national’ hero, ‘national’ food, they don’t realize that this all originates in Pampanga.”


Saniculas-making demonstration at Atching Lillian's kitchen. Image courtesy of Southeast Asia Time Traveler

You won’t just see food being made – you’ll make it yourself!

The tour takes guests to meet some very interesting Kapampangan folks, among them Ramon Ocampo (no relation), proprietor of the home workshop making original Ocampo-Lansang turrones de kasoy and sans rival; and the legendary “Atching” Lillian Borromeo, caretaker of heirloom recipes and a deft hand at baking “saniculas” cookies.

Every stop offers the opportunity to see your favorite Kapampangan foods being made. At Galan’s Chicharon in Guagua, you’ll watch sweaty attendants mixing chicharon in boiling oil; at Ocampo-Lansang, the visit includes venerable old ladies wrapping turrones de kasoy by hand; and at Carreon’s in Magalang, you’ll see plantanillas being churned out by the dozen in a surprisingly modern-looking kitchen.

You can even learn to make your own Kapampangan delicacies – at Atching Lillian’s “Cusinang Matua” (old kitchen), volunteers learn how to make the Kapampangan biscuits known as Panecillos de San Nicolas (saniculas cookies), after a lively demonstration by the lady herself.

“‘Atching’ means ‘big sister’ – she wants to be seen as a big sister in the kitchen,” Bryan explains. “She’s not selfish in sharing her recipes.” 


Retablo and altar of the half-buried Bacolor Church in Pampanga. Image courtesy of Southeast Asia Time Traveler

The Kapampangan always rise above natural disaster

Two volcanoes rise above Pampanga’s almost uninterrupted flatness: Mount Arayat and Mount Pinatubo. Arayat last exploded beyond human memory, while Pinatubo’s cataclysmic 1991 eruption flooded many Pampanga towns in lahar.

Towns like Bacolor and Guagua simply built over the dried ashfall; many shops along the main street in Guagua look as if they’ve sunken half a storey into the earth, while Bacolor Church has simply adapted to being buried 20 feet deep. (Bacolor churchgoers now use the church's upper windows as doors.)

“Bacolor Church shows how thin the line is between fanaticism and faith in Pampanga,” Bryan explains, pointing to local devotees’ refusal to abandon the church. “Even after a flood, they’ll clean the church out and go to Mass later as if nothing happened.”

In Guagua, a more aesthetically pleasing side to faith shines through, thanks to Betis Church and its gorgeous wood sculptures and painted trompe l’oeil ceilings. “I’ve had Catholic Filipinos come to Betis Church, they’re always floored,” Bryan tells me. “They never realized that we have churches like this in the Philippines!”


Ocampo Lansang Delicacies' turrones de kasoy being made. Image courtesy of Southeast Asia Time Traveler

Half the fun of Kapampangan food is bringing it home

Pampanga’s rich, rice-growing land leads both to excess – and experimentation. “With such fertile land, you can afford to be wasteful or to experiment,” Bryan says. “[Through the tour, you’ll see] the creativity of the Kapampangan – it shines, at the same time, it’s preserved to this day.”

That means there’s more than enough food to go around at every stop: inviting frenzied pasalubong shopping wherever Bryan takes you. At Ocampo-Lansang Delicacies, you can buy sans rival and turrones de kasoy at prices far below their equivalents in Manila-based pasalubong shops. Same with the saniculas cookies at Atching Lillian’s and the plantanillas at Carreon’s.

So when you book a spot at the Ultimate Pampanga Food Tour, bring shopping money and save some space in your bag; you’ll need it.

For a more complete transcript (partly translated from Tagalog) of our conversation with the guide, check out this Q&A with Bryan Ocampo on his Pampanga food tour. Or book his Ultimate Pampanga Food Tour for yourself and a handful of your closest friends. 

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