Know about these tummy fillers that are at the core of the Philippine culinary scene. Did you know why food from Pampanga have so much semblance to Spanish cooking? Why there’s more to buying heirloom rice than just being healthy? And how lechon is life to Cebuanos?

Kapampangan food: Spanish roots + exotic eats

Although many destinations claim to be the Philippines’ food capital, Pampanga remains to be an active contender.

Photo by Edgar Allan Zeta-Yap

Pampanga’s dining scene is wide and all-encompassing. There you can go on a seafood journey in Guagua, tease your palate with Candaba’s burong isda and burong hipon
(fermented fish and shrimp), sample rice-based delicacies like tamalis and suman in Bacolor, or munch on Angeles City’s sisig (crisp grilled then chopped pork head) along with beer.

According to Poch Jorolan, a local and owner of the famous Everybody’s Café, Pampanga owes its status as the country’s culinary capital to the influences of foreign invaders who set foot in the province.

When the encomienda system was implemented in Pampanga during the Spanish colonization era, the rich encomienderos hired the Kapampangans as house helpers. At that time, a Kapampangan helper had to work with an encomiendero’s resident chef, inevitably passing on to the former Spanish cooking knowhow.

Photo by Poch Jorolan

But because Kapampangans tend to rely on whatever resources were available in the area, they tweaked what they learned; thus, bringhe became the localized paella, and morcon the Kapampangan version of embutido.

Another Kapampangan food signature is its exotic dishes. Since Pampanga is a landlocked province with no access to the seas, Kapampangans make do with what they have in their plantations. Farmers had to rely on what’s on hand. Frogs are plentiful—and tasty thus it became the chicken they deep fry or for cooking their adobo or sinigang.

Poch says mole crickets thrive in rice fields so farmers have no trouble collecting them. When the rice field is plowed in time for the planting season, they’d surface from the soil. “There’s only one good way to cook camaru, and that’s adobo-style; but we like to sauté it first in tomatoes and onions. It’s very crunchy but tastes like a real adobo,” he shares.

Bicolano Food: The coconut milk and chili love affair

There’s no point in arguing that the best spicy and coconut milk-infused cuisines in the country are in Bicol because it seems that nature has prompted this southern Luzon region to perfect such dishes in time.

Photos by Jocas See

Sili, specifically the small but brutally hot labuyo or bird’s eye chili, and coconut cream are the heart and soul of Bicolano cooking. It’s not a proper Bicolano meal if these two ingredients are missing. However, the degrees to which these two main ingredients are used vary per province, and Albay locals are known for preparing the spiciest and creamiest flavors.

“There is no definite explanation as to why Bicolanos love spicy flavors but the elders attribute it to the cold temperature that the inhabitants would frequently experience for they live close to Mayon Volcano,” shares Renato “BM” Jao, project head of Culinaria Albay. “They needed something with strong flavor to awaken their senses in cold mornings.” The pleasure of adding chili in cooking has been passed on from generation to generation until it became the norm.

Albay’s rich volcanic soil is also good for cultivating sili and vegetables. And since Bicol is rich in coconut trees, gata (coconut milk) is always combined with sili when cooking. For the best pinangat, Camalig is the town to visit while laing is the hallmark cuisine of Legazpi City. These two are both cooked in coconut milk with siling labuyo. The only difference is that the latter contains minced gabi leaves and mixed with meat, while the former are chopped meat and spices wrapped in gabi leaf strips. In neighboring province Sorsogon, laing is cooked
with gabi roots and minced leaves.

BM notes that Bicolano cooking is hardly influenced by foreign invaders.

“Gata and sili are included in the four pillars that make up Bicol’s cuisine, making the region unique,” quips BM.

Philippine coffee: 4-in-1

High-grade coffee cherries. Photo by Martin San Diego

Filipinos have long been in love with coffee. Philippine Coffee Board president Chit Juan says “there are two accounts as to how coffee was introduced to our country. The first record claims that it was brought to Lipa, Batangas in the 1700s by the Spanish friars whereas the other account traces the coffee root to the American period. It was believed that the American missionaries brought coffee to Benguet, that the 100-year-old coffee trees were said to be first planted by these Americans. In South Sulu, there’s an account that says coffee came from Indonesia or Malaysia.”

Freshly-picked coffee cherries from a coffee farm in Lipa City, Batangas. Photo by Martin San Diego

Due to the varied influences and its geographical location, the Philippines is among the few countries that produce all four coffee varieties—Arabica, Liberica, Excelsa, and Robusta. Chit says that our country has the ideal climate and appropriate elevation to grow these varieties.
Arabica only grows in higher elevation such as Benguet, Mt. Apo in Davao, Mt. Kitanglad in Bukidnon, while the other three should be planted in low-lying areas like Batangas and Cavite.

The start of the drying process. Photo by Martin San Diego

In terms of coffee-drinking habits, Chit believes we picked it up from the Spanish colonizers given that they stayed here for over 300 years. But it’s the Americans who gave us the
convenience of having it in the form of instant or soluble coffee.

When asked how coffee became a Filipino’s start-of-day affair, Chit says that back in the days, fishermen and farmers had a habit of drinking coffee to fuel them up before sailing
out to the sea or farm before sunrise. “It’s frequently consumed with pan de sal, a bread introduced to us by the Spaniards.”

Heirloom rice: A grain of culture

Possibly that one thing a regular Filipino household will never ever not have is rice. As big as its demand is the irony of the fact that fewer people know of how patronizing its organic version is key in keeping an important culture and way of life alive.

Photo by Christian Lucas Sangoyo

“Heirloom rice is the general description of the rice varieties that have been handed down by our forefathers to the succeeding generations,” sustainable food proponent Chit Juan says. “These native seeds are preserved by way of continuously growing them. Farmers who cultivate heirloom variety would store a portion of the seeds once the harvest season begins
and plant it in the next season.”

As opposed to the modern varieties, heirloom rice is grown organically. In some provinces, ducks are left on paddy fields to prey on pests that threaten the rice crops.

Bundling up the sundried rice. Photo by Ferds Decena

In Ifugao province in North Luzon, upland farmers who plant rice on their terraced rice paddies use zero modern mechanisms. They follow old farming traditions inherited from their ancestors. It is for this reason that they only harvest once a year, which is why their rice variety is called tinawon, which means “yearly” in their vernacular. Farmers know how
much they should plant to feed their family for a whole year given that heirloom rice is primarily cultivated for household consumption.

At one of the last strongholds of heirloom rice—Ifugao. Photo by Ferds Decena

Chit shares that the only time that they’re able to buy heirloom rice for her sustainable-centered ECHOstore is when these farmers have excess in their harvest. But to her, heirloom
rice is more than just sustenance. She says “it represents a culture, a tradition, and the organic way of life that we once had before all these fertilizers, pesticides, and modern mechanisms were introduced to us. The only way to keep these heirloom varieties is to promote their preservation and consumption so that the farmers would continuously cultivate them in a sustainable manner.”

Lechon: The scene stealer

No feast is complete without this. Photo by Christian Lucas Sangoyo

To many Filipinos, a festivity may not be that festive if there’s no lechon, whole pig roast on a spit over charcoal. It’s often the centerpiece to many major celebrations—birthdays, fiestas, noche buenas, even politicos’ winnings.

The Filipinos were already roasting pigs even way before the Spaniards first set foot on Philippine soil in 1521. The story has it that explorer Ferdinand Magellan, whose arrival in
the Philippines marked the Spanish occupation era, would partake of this scrumptious delicacy.

Photo by Christian Lucas Sangoyo

Cebu in the Visayas is renowned for lechon. According to Cebuano Joel Binamira, the man behind Market Manila blog, the difference between Cebu’s lechon and those from Luzon
is that the former’s is stuffed with aromatic ingredients, while the latter’s is typically cooked unstuffed, hence the popularity of liver gravy as a classic accompaniment.

Today, many commercial lechon makers employ shortcuts like adding copious amounts of MSG rather than natural aromatics in the stomach and brushing the skin with soy sauce
instead of a more traditional bath in coconut water. Visayans typically enjoy their lechon with a dip of vinegar while folks from Luzon prefer a liver-based sauce.

Eating lechon is a way of life for Cebuanos. “Every Sunday, it’s common to see lechon being sold on street corners,” shares Joel.

In Negros Island, batuan (a local sour fruit), fresh banana leaves, rock salt and lemongrass are key ingredients for stuffing, while it’s green chilies with coconut oil and milk in Bicol.

In the sleepy town of Jovellar in Albay, there’s an annual parade—part of the town’s Quipia Festival—showcasing roast pigs dressed in quirky costumes—a tribute to the localities’ business of raising backyard pigs.