Having moved to Pampanga a few years ago, I had the immense pleasure of experiencing the local cuisine more thoroughly than ever before. As the son of a Kapampangan mother, I was exposed to the Kapampangan ways of cooking early. I hate to say it, but it appears that good cooking does flow in one’s blood. I learned how to cook and eat well from my mother. Her cooking informed my palate and what I consider good food. I feel fortunate to be part of the Kapampangan way of eating and cooking, and as I sampled dishes from all over the province, I have to share my five favorite comfort foods. These are available in restaurants, but of course, you can prepare them at home. With deft hands and a keen eye for good taste, you too can cook the way Kapampangans do it—with a big heart and even bigger flavors that explode in your head after the first bite.
Honorable mention: Taba ng talangka (aligue)
I cannot complete this list without including taba ng talangka or aligue, at least as an honorable mention. Crab fat has many uses, and in Pampanga, restaurants regularly experiment with how they can integrate this sinful ingredient that’s packed with flavor into almost any conventional dish, from sinigang na baboy to eclectic rice mixes. For example, seafood-based rice boxes can be boosted incredibly with a few teaspoons of taba ng talangka. However, the locals tend to treat this ingredient as simple ulam that anyone can eat with a twist of calamansi.
Taba ng talangka that’s conventionally sold in supermarkets is often ready to eat, but knowledgeable Kapampangans will tell you that it’s a good practice to sauté it with some sliced garlic and onions first, before adding the calamansi juice right after turning down the heat. Like other legendary dishes, there are no hard rules on ‘how to get it right-you have to figure it out on your own via trial and error.
Remember to work the calamansi juice into the aligue gently, and the crab fat is ready to flavor-bomb you after. Commercial aligue may be pricey, so you may want to get in touch with local dealers of aligue to save up to 60% from your purchases of crab fat. Local sellers can give 400-gram jars of aligue for 250 pesos or just a little over this mark in most cases, and you have the option to have it delivered to your office or home via Grab or any of the local rider services in the province. The Facebook Marketplace is a good place to start finding these local sellers. In most cases you can have the jars shipped to other provinces easily—just make sure that the terms of the shipment are clear, and also remember to deal with reputable sellers only.
Honorable mention: Chicharong Bulaklak
Nothing makes my heart beat faster and harder than a good plate of chicharong bulaklak. While this type of food remains mostly unknown outside of Asia, it has cult following in Pampanga, and you can regularly find sidewalk grillers offering 100 grams or more of these things at insane prices.
Of course, if you are going to say, SM Clark to eat at the food court, you are going to get less per serving, so I suggest that you visit Bale Capampangan in San Fernando, Pampanga to get an unlimited helping of chicharong bulaklak. Mind you, they’re very serious with their food and they are going to deliver 100% on your coronary arteries when you pick up these crispy, greasy delights.
Fifth: Kapampangan Chicharon
Every province has a version of crispy pork rind. After tasting so many versions, I can honestly say that Kapampangan chicharon holds up well to its nearest competitors—the chicharon of Bulacan and the frightfully delightful bagnet of Ilocos which isn’t exactly chicharon but is close in terms of crunch and cholesterol. I eat chicharon as finger food, or I eat it with ketchup and rice. While I know the cardinal rule has always been to eat chicharon with white vinegar, pepper and salt, I like how I do it. Hey, to each his own, right?
Anyway, there are various classes of Kapampangan crispy pork rind, and the one that I l love best would be chicharong may laman, which seems to be coming mainly from Bacolor, Pampanga. It is exceedingly common for these crunchy pork skin products to be dusted with chili powder. The chili powder that is popular here in Pampanga does not provide a lot of heat. Admittedly, the extra spice makes you want to eat the entire thing in one go, though I stop myself constantly because I don’t want to die in my thirties suddenly.
Sin with scrumptious and crunchy pork skin by visiting any public market in any city and simply ask for chicharon na may laman, and the stall owners will point you in the right direction. Some businesses like Susie’s Cuisine also sell these—try to find them in foodpanda or the Grab app. They’re not always available, though. Sometimes these smaller items can only be purchased if you visit larger branches, such as Susie’s Cuisine in Angeles City.
Fourth: Pancit Malabon
While it’s not a Kapampangan invention, I am always down for some pancit Malabon. My favorite stop for this dish is Susie’s Cuisine because they always make sure that the sauce is super rich with seafood flavors, and their pricing isn’t bad, either. For about 100 pesos, you can have a huge plate that will satisfy your gut for a few hours. I usually order at least two plates of pancit, and I also regularly pair pancit Malabon with some chicharon, which I also buy from Susie’s Cuisine. I bring home the rest of the chicharon and eat it for a midnight rice snack/early morning breakfast, and I get headaches all day. Beautiful.
Third: Adobong balut
This is one of the forbidden delights in Pampanga that you have to try at least once in your life. I know it’s not possible that this can be good for any of your organs, so fair warning—it tastes amazing, but it is not healthy!
With that out of the way, let me tell you when I first encountered this monster dish. We were in San Fernando then, way before the pandemic, and we found this eat all you can place in the mall that competed with Cabalen Restaurant, which was the more popular eat-all-you-can place (but not necessarily the best).
They had these massive dishes of wonderfully greasy concoctions and smacked in the middle was adobong balut. The grease aura of the adobong balut was not just inviting—it seemed to do a ‘come hither’ because it looked so good. The adobo sauce had ‘overnight aged’ tones, which demanded heaping scoops of hot rice.
I couldn’t count all the yolks in the serving platter, and I had goosebumps as I scooped up six, seven, or God knows how many balut to bring back to our table. The waiters smiled at me knowingly because I swear, they knew that it was my first time. Then, as I turned my back on the decadent buffet table, a server came in with one of those large aluminum pots and poured a fresh and steaming batch of adobong balut after I took maybe a tray of yolks of away. I could only say “mon Dieu!” as I watched the balut tumble into an inviting pile on the serving dish. I imagined that the Elysian Fields must have a spot just like this, not just for those who lived a righteous life but also for those who loved good food.
I make it a point to eat this dish maybe once a year maximum, because I still want to write for a few more years.
Second: Putung babi
Putung babi is Kapampangan comfort food royalty. And like many Kapampangan dishes, it’s pretty deceptive. It looks like a pile of greasy pancakes when you look at it, but it provides an explosion of savory flavors that will hook your head forward. Putung babi is something you eat when your spirit is waning and you want to feel human again. It’s essentially a simple sandwich with ground pork and egg. The sandwich is fried after an egg bath and eaten on its own or paired with a soup of your choice. Speaking of soup…
I grew up eating hototay, and its simplicity is another testament to the ingenuity of the Kapampangan ways of cooking. While other websites will argue that hototay is just chopsuey with a lot more soup, it’s not. Flavorful hototay has a deep set of flavors that can only be achieved by simmering the right combination of pork cuts. While there are no hard rules (again), the end product of your efforts will reveal your method for cooking hototay.
We get ours from Teresita’s Grill in Mabalacat City, and they have a knack over there for packing so much flavor into highly concentrated and fatty soups and broths. Their version of hototay comprises sliced pork liempo, Chinese cabbage and carrots—though the vegetables are purely ornamental because the first sip will tell you that the soup is probably 80% pork fat pretending to be soup. I can only consume a bowl and no more because it will make you feel warm and sleepy in less than thirty minutes. It’s like going to your grandma’s and being told to stay because you’ve become so cynical as an adult, and your sorry butt needs a good food whooping.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects. Visit Marius’ profile on Minds, MeWe, and Twitter. Email Marius: firstname.lastname@example.org.