Travel & Food

How Pampanga Became the Culinary Capital of the Philippines

Thinking of where to go for the ultimate food trip? Pampanga is definitely your stop



Pampanga is a favorite among tourists because of Mt. Pinatubo, Mt. Arayat, and its numerous heritage sites. But do you know what else there is to love? This province is also the birthplace of the world-renowned and Anthony Bourdain-exalted sisig—just one dish in a long list of mouth-watering specialties that have earned Pampanga the reputation of Culinary Capital of the Philippines.


How—and when—anyway did this province, just an hour and a half away from Manila, become a gastronomic hub? Read on to find out. 



The History 

Did you know? Pampanga’s rich culinary history dates back to the colonial era. Spanish friars favored the region for its local fare and, according to legend, these colonizers preferred that only Pampangueños prepared their food. Cooks in the area were also responsible for producing the menu and dishes served at the proclamation of the First Philippine Republic in January 1899 in Malolos. 


The arrangement that favored Pampangueños, in addition, is what encouraged the Spaniards to transfer some of their cooking techniques to the locals here. Until today, Kapampangan cuisine noticeably features its Spanish heritage, along with other Southeast Asian flavors. 


Another contributing factor to Kapampangan cuisine? The need for locals to be resourceful amid natural calamities. In making do with what’s available to them, people in the region have learned to integrate some rather unconventional staples like crickets and frogs into their diet, using various preservation techniques to keep them fresh. This ability to overcome difficulties, it interestingly shows, helped conserve longstanding culinary traditions.


A food spread of Filipino dishes, from sinigang and lumpia to grilled fish and meat laid out on banana leaves.

Several traditional Filipino dishes find their roots in Pampanga, the Culinary Capital of the Philippines. Photo: Shutterstock



The Food

On to the dishes worth trying in this food hub, it’s time to dig deeper to get to know what is touted as one of Condé Nast’s “unsung food destinations.” Welcome to the Culinary Capital of the Philippines.


Kapampangan food, such as the aforementioned sisig and then the sweet tocino, is recognized nationally, of course. Bringhe, betute, buro, and San Nicolas cookies, on the other hand, are native recipes you may find trickier to get ahold of outside the province. Get to know each one of these famous dishes ahead!



Sisig

Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of this dish, there’s no denying that sisig is a Filipino culinary icon. 


Its history dates back to the year 1732, where, as an Augustinian friar described its earlier iteration, it initially featured a predominantly sour flavor profile—and was more of a salad than anything. It also featured heftier cuts of meat at the time. The dish then evolved during the American Occupation when American troops discarded pig heads and innards, ushering in a change in its main components. Lucia Cunanan, now credited for inventing the modern sisig, took these unwanted parts to create something new. She grilled them while adding new flavors to the dish. The rest is history.     


Sisig served on a sizzling plate accompanied by ingredients such as garlic, onion, calamansi, egg, and red chili.

Finding ways to use discarded pig parts led to the ’sisig’ we know and love today. Photo: Shutterstock



Tocino

Leticia Hizon from the town of Bacolor is the culinary icon responsible for developing the beloved Filipino version of tocino. It was born when Hizon elected to help her neighbor, a meat vendor, by cooking his unsold meat. She used her own curing techniques to sweeten and soften the pork, creating the recipe many Filipinos use in their kitchens today.


Plate of tocino with a sunny-side-up egg on a plate.

‘Tocino’ is sweet, local bacon that is usually served with an egg and vinegar. Photo: Shutterstock



San Nicolas Cookies

Otherwise known as Panecillos de San Nicolas (named after the carved wooden mold with the image of San Nicolas), these cookies are a local favorite and a must-try for any tourist. Spanish nuns from the 1600s shared the recipe for this when the region began constructing churches and locals have kept the tradition alive since. Interesting origin story: during the time, egg whites were considered one of the main building blocks of cement, which led to a surplus of egg yolks. The nuns opted to use this surplus in the kitchen by baking cookies.


The final pastries are pretty, soft, and buttery. You can find them today at Atching Lillian Borromeo's Kusinang Matua.



Halo-Halo

The humble beginnings of the famous Filipino dessert center sisters Virginia, Severina, and Elena Razon, who ran a simple food stall located across their home in 1972. Their version of shaved ice sold here featured some notable extras: macapuno (coconut sport), leche flan, saging na saba, and milk. The business was small at the time but boomed. Their unique recipe brought flocks of locals to the stall, which inevitably brought fame to the municipality as the place to go for the best halo-halo.


Halo-halo with milk on the side.

Have you ever heard of Razon’s, the popular ‘halo-halo’ chain? It started out as a stall in Guagua, Pampanga. Photo: www.instagram.com/razonsofguagua.ph



Bringhe

This may share similarities with the Spanish paella, but bringhe, it should be known, is pre-colonial Kapampangan food. This dish typically contains chicken, peas, chorizo, turmeric, and peppers with glutinous rice and coconut milk (with the option of adding eggs). It couldn’t escape, however, the various foreign influences once Pampanga established its strong ties with the Spaniards. Iterations of the dish were then born.


You can find top-notch bringhe at Chef Claude Tayag’s restaurant Downtown Cafe in Angeles.


Yellow bringhe with raisins over a leaf on a white plate.

‘Bringhe’ is a proudly precolonial dish. Photo: Shutterstock



Buro

Usually paired with steamed veggies and deep-fried fish, buro is a mixture of fermented rice and fish or shrimp. This special paste recipe was a result of Pampanga's particular topography, an extra special dish with a special history. Pampangueños turned their regular experiences with floods and dry periods into something worthwhile by catching fish from the river during the rainy season and cultivating rice when the deluge subsided. They used the surplus of both staples to create this time-saving dish.



Betute

This dish is a combination of ground pork, salt, pepper, alagaw, garlic, onions, and carrots stuffed in frogs caught from the river or the rice paddies of Pampanga. After being marinated in vinegar and minced garlic, the frogs are deep-fried until golden brown. Betute may be for the adventurous eater, but it is as Kapampangan as Kapampangan can get. A delicious treat nonetheless.


Fried frogs on a white plate.

Tastes like chicken? You bet-ute. Photo: Shutterstock


It’s easy to see the contribution that Pampangueños have brought to Filipino food over the years. With a history as rich as this (relating to food, too!), Pampanga should definitely make its way on everybody’s bucket list.


Plan a food trip to the culinary capital of the Philippines with ease thanks to Globe Ultrafast 5G network. Hop on from one gastronomic adventure to the next without any hiccups and always stay connected.



Art Matthew Fetalver

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