During one of our culinary pilgrimages to Pampanga, we decided to look for well-known local TV personality and cook book author Lilian Borromeo better known as "Atching Lilian" who is the keeper of traditional recipes and cooking methods on that side of Pampanga which is called Mexico. She lives in a compound that houses an ancestral 1917 home and a rustic outdoor kitchen. This amazing lady is visited by droves of hospitality students and culinary enthusiasts who wish to learn traditional Capampangan fare, take her daily lessons and sample her old world Pampango delicacies. Atching Lilian is not only a keeper of almost forgotten recipes but she readily shares the historical connections of her food with the significant past.
We recently discussed this Capampangan obsession for egg yolks in baking which was actually the training of the locals by Spanish nuns who needed to use the oversupply of egg yolks of which the egg whites were all used as mortar mixed with lime powder to build edifices such as churches and government buildings. Anyway, we did a sampling of her goodies where our tables teemed with freshly baked products from her kitchen. Lilian's ensaimadas, which are true to Capampangan tradition, are rich in egg yolks and butter. She was apologetic on that day because her ensaimada she said were "sour" having stayed on the rise or probably proofing phase for a long time. I didn't mind a light tanginess on the dough because it gives a savory character to the bread and gives it a characteristic homemade aroma and meatiness in being overfermented. The ensaimadas turned out to be rich, soft and meltingly sinful.Her version of the San Nicolas cookie is crisp, short and airy because of the addition of arrowroot that reacts with the coconut and egg yolk fat.
You just can't have one cookie as you keep on eating a number of these tropical types of coconut short bread. Another unique product that I find closest to my heart and I can't stop thinking about when I think of Mexico, Pampanga is her Dulce Prenda. The Dulce Prenda is another coconut cookie base stuffed into a deep mold and later on sandwiched with a custard filling made of carabao's milk and Lilian's very own bits of minatamis na kundol. The crunchy cookie coating redolent of coconut milk was made even richer by the creamy carabao's milk filling flavored and sweetened by the kundol (winter melon). Even more remarkable are her dried tomatoes, which are glazed, dried reddish green tomato slices cooked simply in sugar and air dried to form a dry translucent sweet covering. These crunchy yet spongy tomatoes have just the right amount of glaze and sweetness that gives the eater the compulsion to keep on eating and popping these morsels into one's mouth as the flavors build up.
I found myself staying for lunch and merienda in her house a day after. It seems as though she has grown used to seeing visitors who wish to come and learn about classical Capampangan fare. A simple Bulanglang a Bangus with tangleh or aromatic alagaw leaves was a light introduction together with another simple pork pesa nilaga with vegetable heightened with tomato that is straight from barrio cooking. What excited everyone was a jar of homemade taba ng talangka obviously with a lot of female marsh crab fat in the mixture which we scooped out and did an ambula, the Capampangan version of mixing viscous sauce or soup with a sumptuous manner or attitude of eating; this does not have a Tagalog or English translation unfortunately. Then the best surprise of it all were her two dishes made of monitor lizard eggs called ebunbarag done salted egg or maalat na itlog style which tasted like appenzeller cheese and some soft boiled monitor lizard eggs that we squeezed out on our steamed rice. The creamy white liquid akin to a sauce mornay was heavenly with a light touch of fish sauce, chili and dayap.
Dessert was another jar of dulcegatas or sweetened carabao's milk which followed through to merienda as Atching Lilian prepared her homemade milk chocolate that she blends herself. The paste that is blended lightly with roasted peanut paste is aerated with a baterol on a copper chocolatera. And the delicate flavors of carabao's milk and chocolate make their presence known on your palate as the mousse or bubbles explode as you sip the warm confection.
One of the interesting pieces of equipment in her kitchen is the old-fashioned clay talyasi or covered clay wok that maintains very long heat because of its thick clay construction. This is placed in a wood fired stove and we cooked some Pampango style beef ribs asado that we simmered gently. Surprisingly, this got the job done in less than two hours which is about 30 percent less than your regular stainless steel pot. The tender meat and connective tissue had maintained their character and, of course, rustic flavors from wood fired cooking were incomparable.
Perhaps Atching Lilian would be good for another visit on another turn of the season, maybe this January or this summer, as her cuisine blends with the seasons and her tireless efforts to preserve tradition are always a treat to those who wish to learn the rich Capampangan culture of food.
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