On the eve of the Chinese New Year, I was in a Pampango home whose main dinner dish, competing with the lechon, was rabo de toro (ox-tail in sauce). On New Year’s Day itself, I was in another Pampango party that lasted from a late lunch at 1 p.m. to dinner. The birthday celebrant explained that at his age, he and his friends often meet at wakes and funerals so he felt it best to throw one big party so that his friends could come together in a more joyful setting. Here competing with freshly carved rib eye, glazed ham and Chinese ham was rabo de toro again! Frankly, I hoped to find cabeza de jabali (boar’s head), which was described in 19th century travel accounts of the Philippines and a staple in the grand meals of Sulipan in the home of the Arnedo family.
The marathon Chinese New Year party was held in Café Ysabel, which is run by Arnedo descendants, so I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the fabled utensils and toothpick holders of Philippine silver, or at least the porcelain dinner service presented to Arnedo by a Russian grand duke who had enjoyed his hospitality in the late 19th century. But that may be asking too much, so I suggested that, to be more in touch with the times, they serve Lipitor and an assortment of medications on a silver salver set prominently on the buffet table.
The dessert table was literally groaning with an assortment of sweets to drive your sugar count to dangerously high levels. The first thing that disappeared was the tocino del cielo, a mini bite-size leche flan that is more lethal because each piece, following the traditional recipe, must have one egg yolk and lots of sugar. There were sans rival and a mountain of glazed cream puffs that was the frontispiece in a turn-of-the-20th-century cookbook and called “roquembucheng caraniuan,” which made everyone wonder what the special one was like.
In a Pampango feast, the main dishes are hearty meat dishes. If you serve fish, it has to be the expensive apahap, which is the closest thing to Chilean sea bass.
I don’t remember seeing green tossed salads on fiesta tables—vegetables seemed to be scarce on special occasions. What I do remember from my childhood is that the dessert table often had a wider assortment on offer than the main dishes. Little wonder, most of my relatives were afflicted with diabetes and high cholesterol.
Because the party described above was held on the Chinese New Year, I wondered why there seems to be little or no Chinese influence in Pampango cuisine. While there are many Chinese words in the vocabulary that deal with food, utensils and cooking methods, I have yet to see a Chinese banquet in a Pampango home. I have partaken of Japanese-themed dinners, even Thai food served in Pampango households but no Chinese lauriats. There are unmistakable foods from China or of Chinese origin, such as toyo (soy sauce) or noodles like pancit and sotanghon, but these don’t take pride of place. If noodles are served at all, these are round or flat noodles in Italian-style tomato or cream sauces. Lumpia and okoy are staples for merienda but rarely as main courses. Bowls, small dishes and chopsticks are used for Japanese food but not for Chinese-style food. One could say that whatever Chinese influence can be found in the food culture of Pampanga, it is so deeply ingrained that it has become invisible unlike Spanish or French influences.
Being a historian complicates eating because instead of just enjoying a good meal I look at the origins of dishes. For example, the tamales of Pampanga is nothing close to the Mexican kind, which is described as “a kind of small dumpling made of Indian meal seasoned with chili wrapped in the husk of Indian corn and boiled in oil.” Even in shape the Pampango tamales is different: it is square and made up of ground rice with chicken, ham and egg, the amount of filling depending on how special it is. These are wrapped in layers of banana leaves and steamed.
Turron de casuy is similar to the Spanish turron Alicante, long rectangular blocks of hard nougat with almonds and honey wrapped in an almost invisible but edible film. Turron de casuy must have been made to simulate turron Alicante but, having no almonds, local cooks used cashew nuts instead. Instead of big blocks, turrones de casuy come in easier to bite bars made of a similar nougat. Honey is not white like that in turron Alicante, but brownish. Turrones come wrapped in an edible wafer like that used for Eucharistic hosts. First timers have to be told that you don’t peel a turron de casuy. You bite and eat everything.
Biringhi sounds the most exotic of all. But when one sees it on a fiesta table, one might mistake it for Spanish paella. While the Spanish paella is made from saffron-colored rice with chicken and pork topped with bell pepper and lemon, biringhi is made from malagkit or glutinous rice instead of the ordinary rice. It has chicken, pork and chorizo, but instead of saffron ange is used, giving it a distinct green color. Sometimes gata or coconut milk is added to make it richer than the paella.
Food is a marker of culture, a reflection of history. Studying food may be complicated, but sampling it beats a trip to the library or archive any time. Food is something we take for granted, but it says a lot about who we are and where we came from.