On a recent trip back to the Philippines I stepped away from the comfort of air-conditioned malls and brand names. I set out to see what hidden gems awaited me in my own country.
Day 1: Cavite
Cavite is rich in culture, history and landmark food stops. The road to Cavite makes for a quicker trip than getting to Makati. The car trip was 38 minutes from Pasay City, or 23 kilometers via the Coastal Road (Aguinaldo Highway) and CaviteX (Cavite Express).
First stop was the historic Emilio Aguinaldo Shrine in Kawit, Cavite. Birds chirped amid the hum of vehicles passing by. The scorching sun and the calm blue sky were a perfect backdrop to the splendid red-leafed fire trees.
Inside, I took in the mahogany banisters, the wide wooden interiors, the splendor of days gone by. Every room, corner and secret alcove gave me a sense of pride and awe at the history preserved. Entrance is free, but donations are appreciated.
Next stop, Robinson’s Tamales in Cavite City, which has an heirloom recipe handed down through generations by the American patriarch of the family. The steamed rice cake wrapped in banana leaves has a peanut-coconut aroma. Buy a bunch and eat at a leisurely pace.
Lunch was at Asiong’s Carinderia, a popular eatery that dates back to the ‘60s. Get here by tricycle from Robinson’s Tamales in five to ten minutes. This humble carinderia is legendary and the food reminds you of home-cooked meals at your grandparents’. Order turo-turo style (point and tell the server). The flavors of each dish are exquisite and sourced from the natural homegrown ingredients of Cavite.
Day 2: Kapampangan Culinary Tour
Pampanga day tours are the best if you want to immerse in a rich, culinary heritage without travelling far. From Manila, it’s about two hours by car, or 65 kilometers through the North Luzon Expressway.
First stop was Everybody’s Café in San Fernando, Pampanga for lunch. Inside the comfortable restaurant, with original tablecloths from his parents era, tour guide Poch Jorolan of Outereaters Tours and Events energized us with a Kapampangan meal of beef morcon (meat roll), crisp lechon kawali (deep-fried pork), pindang damulag, lumpia, burong isda (fermented fish) with mustasa (mustard green).
The day moved swiftly. We visited Lillian Borromeo’s Heirloom Kitchen in Mexico, Pampanga, for merienda (snack) and to buy the handcrafted Pan de San Nicolas wooden cookie molds.
Next, Apung Uping’s for the exquisite espasol made out of kundol. I bought two large boxes, and they lasted till the trip back to the States.
Off we went to Guagua to the good old La Moderna Bakery for the heritage biscuits called masa podrida (fermented dough) made from pork lard, gorgorias (braided cookies) with dayap lime, loaves of taisan and inipit (butter cakes with filling). Galan’s chicharon was pork heaven, with an infinite variety of chicharon and sweet achara or green papaya pickles.
A church stop was breathtaking: St. James the Apostle church in Betis is known as the Sistine Chapel of the Philippines. The ornate, lavish and elegant ceiling-to-floor artworks by local artists could rival the Vatican’s.
Maligaya 168 Pasalubong Center in San Fernando was packed with unique gifts, wooden handicrafts, elegant furnishings, clothes, shoes and edible goodies for everyone on one’s list. Service was efficient and friendly.
The Queso de Bola Cheesecake and cashew Petite Fortunes by Teaspoon Desserts’ baker Des Castro were que rico. Her scrumptious sweets will give Manila desserts a run for their money.
Our day was capped with merienda-cena (late afternoon meal) by chef Dennis Lim of the LA Bakeshop famous for its “cheesebread” Lim served a multicourse gourmet dinner in his large warehouse-style dining room.
Day 3: Calasiao Puto and a Mass at Manaoag
My personal prayers are always granted at the miraculous shrine of Our Lady of Manaoag, Pangasinan. From Tarlac, it took two hours by car to travel in time for the 8 a.m. service.
Later, sidewalk vendors swarmed us. Bargain if you must, it’s part of the fun. I bought giant guavas, mangoes, duhat (java black plum). I sampled freshly cooked bucayo (coconut chew), its sweet tendrils urging me to buy more; fragrant tupig (sticky rice logs) in burnt banana leaves and petite Calasiao putos, sweet tiny rice cakes.
Lastly, I toured my own province, Tarlac. It took 30 minutes by car to Camiling to visit our Kipping cousins in their ancestral home for a private visit. I was enthralled by the history of my cousins’ great grandmother, Leonor Rivera, sweetheart of national hero, Jose Rizal, the muse for his Maria Clara. I ran my fingers on the ivory keys of Leonor’s baby grand, leafed through the Noli signed by Rizal and her first edition classics, porcelain platters, furniture and photos.
My cousins sent me home with a slab of chicharon Camiling, the Tarlac bagnet (crisp pork belly), which we chopped and deep-fried.
On your next Philippine visit, go on provincial day trips. These small towns are less expensive than neighboring Asian cities and bring you closer to the heart of what matters. Follow the locals for an affordable, fun vacation with lots of pasalubongs to bring back.
How to get there:
Cavite: Take regular buses from Lawton and Baclaran to Cavite City. Ask the conductor to drop you off at the shrine.
Pampanga: The guided tour included meals, via Outereater Tour & Events, Poch Jorolan email@example.com, mobile 0917-510-8961 or 0999-994-8634.
Pangasinan: From Manila, four hours by car; take North Luzon Expressway (Nlex), exit Luisita. Go through Tarlac to reach Pangasinan via Carmen, Rosales, Villasis. At Urdaneta, after the market intersection, take the next junction that says “Manaoag.”
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.