Many years ago, my family would often visit my grandmother in Pampanga, which is considered a culinary capital in the Philippines. During those occasions, my Apu or Lola Mercedes and my aunts would often prepare a feast boasting of dishes the province is known for.
Particular favorites include burong isda (fermented rice with either tilapia, gurami, or dalag), burong hipon (fermented shrimp), burong mustasa (fermented mustard leaves), pindang babi or tocino, pindang damulag (fermented carabao meat). To my recollection, Apu Mercedes served the best murcon, bringhe, kalderetang kambing or baka, and menudo. Big family lunches would often be capped with the finest desserts consisting of kalame pisalubong, tibuk-tibuk, leche flan, and tablea hot chocolate.
Pampanga is also known for exotic dishes. One dish I remember eating with gusto was tinolang tugak (frog). Someone brought freshly caught frogs from the farm and my Dang Mareng (Aunt Mareng) meticulously cleaned them. I curiously watched how the poor tiny things were stripped of their skin and chopped into pieces to be sautéed in garlic, onions, and ginger. There was not much meat to be eaten but the frogs were very tasty.
A portion of the frogs were made into betute, or deep fried stuffed frogs. This was also one delicious dish, much more tastier than a fried chicken. It was very crunchy and the stuff inside, which was ground meat, made the dish a delight to consume.
I remember my Tatang Tino (Uncle Tino) brought a bag of live kamaru (mole crickets) when he got back from a farm in Tarlac. The poor insects were cleaned and stir-fried in a wok. Afterwards, they were cooked in vinegar, like an adobo dish. I deliberately refused to eat them, so I couldn’t tell how they taste. A few hours before they were cooked, I picked a couple of the live ones and made them into a pet. I was a child then.
Another time, Tatang Tino brought a bag of salagubang (beetles) caught also from the same farm in Tarlac. Just like the kamaru, the salagubang were cleaned and stir-fried in a wok and cooked adobo style. I also deliberately refused to eat them as some hours before they were cooked, I picked several and my playmates and I played with them. We would stick together two beetles with a bubble gum and release them on the ground. The one who would be able to carry the other one and walk would be the winner.
There’s also another exotic Pampanga dish that doesn’t get much attention to belong to the list of Pampanga’s popular dishes. It’s called burong talangka (fermented crabs)—yes, Kapampangans love to ferment just about anything.
Growing up in a Kapampangan household, I remember the burong talangka seemed like a manna from heaven despite the bad smell—fetid and repugnant–like a smell of rotting fish coming from sewage. It could really make you puke.
Every time my Ima (mother) would prepare burong talangka (it’s so easy to prepare, clean the farm-caught crabs, put them in a container, put salt on the live crabs, seal the container, and let rest for several days until they’re ready), my big clan was looking forward to eating them. My aunts and cousins, who lived nearby, would bring cooked rice to the house and feast on burong talangka. The dish was best enjoyed with calamansi. You get one ugly black piece, pry it open, scrape the contents onto the hot rice and pour a bit of calamansi juice and consume by hand. Mind you, the big kaldero of rice would be scraped to the bottom when this dish was served.
With all these dishes, Pampanga is really a culinary capital not only for those who love food, but for the adventurous and curious.