Sau del Rosario in front of Cafe Fleur, in the garden of the same house. Photograph by Neal Oshima
Food & Drink Features

From tamales to morcon: how Pampanga’s sons are keeping the hometown cuisine alive

In which writer Clinton Palanca goes on a food crawl with Sau del Rosario through the chef’s hometown Pampanga — from markets to carinderias to his elegant Art déco restaurant—picking up lessons and insights on the great influence of Pampangueño cuisine on a country’s repertoire of beloved staples.
Clinton Palanca | Mar 15 2019

Everyone seems to know Sau del Rosario in Pampanga, and everyone loves him. From market stall vendors to bakeshop owners to the servers at each carinderia we would go to—everyone would meet him with a kiss or a hug. With unconcealed excitement he would launch into an explanation of how long a carinderia had been going, how he would come and polish off an entire duck on his own, how long the broth was simmered. And because his excitement was so infectious, although I had sworn fifteen minutes ago that I would not be able to eat anything for the next fortnight, I would find myself tucking into the umpteenth meal of the day.

The carinderia crawl came about because of social media. I knew Sau from way back, and his posts of his food adventures in his home province of Pampanga were always intriguing. This was not the Pampangueño food that the usual food snobs from the region seemed to insinuate that they lived on: gorging on morcon recumbent on a sofa while being massaged and fanned by servants.

The food ready for the lunch crowd at Maggs, in the heart of the San Fernando market.

“You must understand, there are many levels to Pampanga food,” Sau explained. We were at our first stop, Everybody’s Café, where we had arranged to meet. “What you’re thinking of is just one aspect of our cooking—what is known as sulipeña. Think of it as a way of dining as much as anything else: all that silver, and the servants, each guest at the table had their own little bell. But most families didn’t eat that way. So there’s Pampangueño home cooking, then there’s the street food, the vernacular.” Another way of looking at it, he proposed, was not by social stratification but by the style of the meal: again with sulipeña as the most formal setting, and then come the family meals, kamayan, and the roadside carinderia.

Restaurants that served what would otherwise be considered Pampanga home cooking, such as Everybody’s Café, are a recent phenomenon—to open up family recipes to, well, everybody. It started in a small stall across from the San Fernando market, but now it has two locations. They served us morcon, buro, pindang, and camarao—some of the dishes that come to mind as most representative of the region. These are all from the repertoire of home cooking among the middle classes. Morcon was served mostly for special occasions, though. Buro is no longer prepared in a special earthenware jar and buried underground, but in any sanitary container and left at room temperature; whether it is made with a combination of rice and fish or shrimp or pork, all of it melts into a gloopy, cheesy mush which some detractors have likened to cat vomit but which its many fans, myself included, liken to ripe Gorgonzola.

Sau with Aching Maggs of Magg's carinderia.

 

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What we know as tocino—basically sweet cured pork with lots of red food coloring—is an industrialized product that is worlds away from the original pindang, cured with much more vinegar than sugar, and usually made from carabao meat. (Interestingly, pindang in Malaysia and Indonesia refers to cooking fish in a sour broth that also has preservative qualities, a bit like our paksiw or sinaing.) Camarao, the local delicacy—or Fear Factor challenge, depending on your point of view—of fried crickets are simply no longer available; while there used to be swarms that simply fell into the nets placed in rice fields, the insects have become something of a rarity in the increasingly built-up province.

Making tamales in the traditional way, and their long simmer over firewood.

The Acapulco-Manila galleon brought an interchange of goods and culture between the two Hispanized countries, including the tamales, which has entered the repertory of several regions of the Philippines, including Samar, Batangas, and Pampanga—where the tradition is being kept alive by, among others, a woman who has been making it according to the same recipe since 1972, wrapping the parcels by hand and cooking them over a wood fire. The Mexican tamales dates from the pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations, and reflects the staple grain of the region: it’s made from masa, or ground corn, and is wrapped in corn husks. The Philippine variations substitute galapong, ground rice, for the masa and banana leaves to wrap them with. The Pampangueño variant is starchy, like a savory maja blanca, and topped with boiled egg, liberal dollops of annatto, and some ground peanuts. Once a popular snack after mass (especially simbang gabi) or to take into the fields as a convenient packet of carbohydrates, its popularity has been declining, and Sau is on a quest to make tamales great again. Apart from championing the traditional version, tucked in its layers of banana leaves folded over to make a sturdy parcel, he serves a version in his restaurant in which the flavors are familiar but intensified, layered and deep.

 

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The great Pampangueño influence

What we had come for, though, was carinderia food, so for lunch (still reeling a bit from the intake of carbohydrates from the tamales) we headed into the bowels of the San Fernando public market, to Magg’s Canteen. In the heart of the market, trays of food glistened behind glass as an army of heaved cauldrons and frying pans to keep a steady stream of food coming. We sat down at long trestle tables and Poch, the owner of Everybody’s Café, who had joined us for lunch, ordered for us. A large bottle of soda and a bowl of ice completed the scene. Sau made occasional sorties and returned bearing palitaw for dessert and a box of cheese bread from L.A. Café. It was my first introduction to kilayin, a kind of adobo made without soy sauce from the heart, liver, and lungs of a pig; paired with Magg’s home-made chili sauce, it was a perfect foil for a cup of steaming rice. This dish of various meats, which may or may not include off-cuts for reasons of economy, is present wherever you go across the archipelago. It goes by many regional and local names; the one most familiar to us would be paksiw—an unpretentious stew in a strong vinegar (whatever happens to be available) with some aromatics and spices. Pampangueños will be quick to point out that the inclusion of the lungs is what distinguishes it from, say, igado, a similar dish from Ilocos. Even sisig, in its most ancient, etymological form—first recorded in the 17th century—referred to any preparation dressed in vinegar.

Breakfast at Everybody's Cafe: longganisa and pindang, or cured carabao.

The hot, verdant plains of Pampanga, full of migratory birds, swarms of insects, and endless fields of rice was one of the crucibles of what would eventually emerge as “Filipino” cuisine. Eating at Magg’s was an eye-opening glimpse into the outsized influence Pampanga has had over what we think of as our national food—especially for those who live in the capital region. From the little bags of ulam and rice served by entrepreneurial housewives to office workers in Makati, to institutional catering in hospitals, schools, to microwaved rice meals served in economy class: most of our unpretentious, everyday food carries the same DNA as the Pampangueño vernacular. It was like returning to the pure, unadulterated version of what were now thickened with cornstarch or poured out from a flavor sachet.

In retrospect this only made sense: the mass urban migrations that made the Metro Manila area a melange of food cultures from all over the Philippines only took place in the latter half of the 20th century; in the years prior to that, the growing city drew its population, and naturally took its culinary influences, from Pampanga and Bulacan to the north and Cavite to the south. This eventually evolved to form the basis of vernacular cuisine served by street vendors, or the eatery in its purest form: when a housewife who cooked well and wanted to make some extra money for the family put a few chairs and tables in front of her kitchen.

Part of the attributes of carinderia food, as food historian Micky Fenix points out, is that aside from being everyday, unpretentious cooking, it should either reheat well or still be palatable at room temperature. She herself had her first taste of Pampanga cooking at a carinderia called Sinagtala on Recto, at the suggestion of restaurateur Abe Cruz—tasting the guttural first before being introduced to its more refined aspects later on by Claude Tayag. She also notes that there seemed to be a greater differentiation between classes in Pampanga: “My sources differentiated between those cooking upstairs and cooking downstairs, which rattled me because I grew up not knowing that distinction […] What we ate was also what the maids ate.”

Braised placenta, Asadung Dila ( Asadong Dila ng Baka)

This can hypothetically be attributed to the wealth and complexity of Pampango society in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was not a melting-pot like Manila, where the Sangley vendors competed with the carinderia. Here, as in Negros, social hierarchies rule. But even while we try to make neat restrictive boxes for the types of Pampanga cooking, it is impossible that carinderia food did not take inspiration from the highest levels of sulipeña cooking, which in turn was heavily influenced by an attempt at Spanish mores, as well as French cuisine, which was preeminent in the 19th and 20th centuries. We see this in the attempt to make sauces thick—as they would be if they had been created using a classic French stock—sometimes with the addition of mashed-up liver (or its modern equivalent, liver spread out of a tin). Tomato-based dishes such as mechado and menudo appear on many carinderia menus, and although they might differ greatly from the original dishes they were trying to recreate, it is the fact that they were trying to serve Spanish dishes to demonstrate that the circulation of these recipes and the attempt to replicate them was not limited to the upper classes, as was once believed.

At another restaurant called Taldawa the specialities of the house were goat and duck—the former came in the form of a divine sinigang cooked over firewood; the meat was fork tender, and the fat of the goat had become creamy and buttery. They served us mugs of the steaming broth, into which you could ladle spoonfuls of rice and drink it like a porridge. I asked if they did a papaitan with the innards and received a baleful stare. They also do a kind of salad with the skin, boiled until gelatinous, and chopped up and served with onions and chili. It seemed like it was heavily scented with some sort of herb, but they said it was just the goatiness of the goat—taken to extreme levels. The duck, braised in a kind of dry adobo, was more challenging, and did not yield itself to cutlery; and it tasted completely unlike any sort of farmed duck, and more like a game bird. The food service at Taldawa is only once a day, beginning at around 10 am and ending by 1 pm. They don’t cook for dinner: the place transforms into a beer garden and karaoke bar, and they serve drinks and pulutan. This guarantees that the food is freshly cooked daily, the long simmer starting out in the early hours of the day.

Calderetang Kambing and Sigang Kambing (Sinigang na Goat).

 

To stay alive, cuisine must innovate

We were out of San Fernando by this time and had rumbled into Angeles City proper, where in a heritage-protected site Sau had set up his new restaurant, 25 Seeds, and relocated his three-year-old Café Fleur in a gracious old mansion with a sprawling garden. Café Fleur occupies a little nook in the garden, a purpose-built space that latches onto the main house; 25 Seeds, the more formal farm-to-table restaurant, occupies the living-room of the house, traditionally located on the second floor. When Sau first acquired the place it was in a state of neglect and disrepair, and many millions had to be spent for its refurbishment. He cheerfully mentioned the “ghosts”—an old man and woman, he said, who would occasionally appear, especially if he was throwing out something that had been of sentimental value.

The cosy main dining-room of Sau's restaurant, 25 Seeds.

It would be easy for a cuisine as hallowed and storied as the Pampangueño’s to remain in a kind of statis of reverence, with its main practitioners serving as high priests to communicate a more authentic past when recipes stayed within families, and nothing was adulterated with powdered stocks or seasonings from a sachet. But I share Sau’s point of view that for a cuisine to be alive it must innovate. There are many ways that this can happen: when it mixes with other local cuisines in a now-diverse grassroots carinderia scene in Manila, for example, where it can rub elbows with dishes from Ilocos or Samar. It innovates when it is appropriated by high-end chefs serving tiny dishes to moneyed expats, where the traditional flavors become transformed into dusts, meringues, foams, mousses, and jellies.

But its most potent and important innovations come when one of its native sons, or at least someone steeped in its mores and traditions, tries to push the boundaries of its traditions. For example: what is a tamales? Sau focuses more on the taste, that distinctive mix of ground rice, chicken, egg, and liberal lashings of annatto, while eschewing the many layers of banana leaf with which it is wrapped. Logically it seems like something of a reversal—the essence of a tamales being that which is wrapped—but this distinction is upended and the tamales he serves is something like a flan in a glass cup—but with distinctly the same flavor as that which we tasted that morning.

Pepasingong Apahap ( Steamed Local Seabass) with Soy and Garlic, Sisig

As a chef, Sau is one of the last batches for whom being a stagière in Paris was a necessary part of earning his culinary stripes, and getting an education in cooking as art and métier“Doon ako hinasa,” he said—a dull blade become keen-edged and gleaming from his experiences there. One suspects that the education was not just a culinary one but a sentimental one as well, though he doesn’t really talk about this. Subsequent generations of chefs reflect the globalization of access to culinary formation—you can go to Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok; though many chefs these days choose not to cook within the formal French tradition, and their foundational skills, and the way they put together a recipe, are influenced more by Japanese or Chinese techniques instead. But Sau will still sear a leg of goat when he is making a kaldereta, as you would for a gigot d’agneau. Most recipes these days skip this step: but how can you make a flavorful sauce without the sear?

Sau's contemporary take on the tamales.

With Sau and his colleagues—I make special mention of my friends Claude Tayag and Gene Gonzalez here because they are my other spirit guides to the food of the region—treading the delicate balance between tradition and innovation, Kapampangan food is in good hands.

 

Photographs by Neal Oshima