“A Taste of Culture” by Oz Mendoza was originally published in Mabuhay Magazine, January 2013.
To experience the true local character of a place, you can’t merely look at the culture—you need to taste it, too. That’s the spirit behind the Kulinarya Tagala, a culinary and heritage tour that winds through several towns in the Southern Tagalog provinces of Laguna, Batangas, and Quezon. In my case, I only got to visit places in Quezon. But what lovely things I got to taste (and see): crispy kiping, charred kulawo, sweet leafy pako, and spicy longganisa. (And some nice houses, too.)
Lucban is famous for its Pahiyas Festival, when the town is festooned with the colorful rice wafers known as kiping. At Koffee Klatch Restaurant, owner Milada Dealo Valde demonstrated how kiping is made, dipping a large green leaf into gooey pink batter made of glutinous rice dough and food coloring.
After letting excess goo drip from the leaf, Mrs. Valde placed it inside a steamer. After a few minutes, the batter hardened into a crisp and could be pulled off the leaf, giving us a sample of kiping.
Koffee Klatch served a savory local delicacy, Pancit Habhab: sautéed miki noodles topped with pork and mixed vegetables. I left the restaurant carrying a basket full of Dealo brand treats: fingerling biscuits (Camachiles), toothbusting egg cracklets (Galletas), sugar-glazed thin crisps (Apas), and the famous Broas—crunchy toasted lady fingers.
Lucban is also known for its longganisa, or pork sausage. Lucban longganisa has a rich garlicky flavor that distinguishes itself from the regular kind. Half a block away from Lucban Church, you’ll find Eker & Ely, a store that’s said to offer the best longganisa in town.
Kamayan Sa Palaisdaan translates into “eating with your hands at the fishery.” That’s exactly what you do at the restaurant by that name—although they offer spoons and forks if you want them.
You dine in floating cottages set on rafts upon a freshwater fish pond. Walking the narrow footbridge to your table takes a bit of nimbleness, so forget the high heels.
Kamayan Sa Palaisdaan’s specialty is pla-pla (tilapia). I tried a dish named sinugno—cooked by soaking tilapia in coconut milk, wrapping it in mustard leaves, and grilling it—lending the fish a delicate texture and creamy taste.
I loved the ensaladang pako, or fiddlehead fern salad. The tender greens have a raw, leafy, and slightly sweet flavor that both stimulates and satisfies.
Tayabas has two significant points of culinary interest. Mallari Distillery is the town’s oldest producer of lambanog, highly intoxicating liquor made with the nectar of the coconut flower. Drinking lambanog is a time-cherished tradition, and if you want to imbibe a bit of local heritage, buy a bottle at the Mallari Distillery storefront on Rizal Street.
Another street, Kalye Budin, is named after a glutinous pastry made from cassava and coconut milk. It is lined with vendors selling freshly-baked budin alongside other delicacies, including halayang ube (purple yam jam) and uraro (arrowroot cookies).
The ancestral houses of Sariaya were built by the coconut barons who thrived here in the 1920s and ‘30s. They have been renovated and refurbished and now stand as monuments to a lifestyle that no longer exists.
Don Catalino Rodriguez’s mansion has a classic, traditional Filipino style, and traipsing on its antique hardwood floors, you truly feel like you’ve gone back in time a hundred years. Costumed partygoers and a traditional rondalla add to the illusion of living in the past.
The Gala-Rodriquez house, an Art Deco marvel designed by Juan Nakpil, is surprisingly modern in contrast. The sumptuous living room and dining room would not look out of place in a contemporary estate. But then you notice the private chapel, the exquisitely ornate French Provincial furnishings—and the secret underground chamber (for hiding from the Japanese during the Second World War).
Another heritage site in Sariaya is the Church of St. Francis of Assisi. Though originally built in 1599, the present church structure dates from 1748. The main centerpiece of the church is the 18th-century statue of Sto. Cristo de Burgos. Devotees have been known to kiss the statue’s feet.
The Kulinarya Tagala day trip ended at Ugu Bigyan’s Potter Garden in Tiaong. The potter himself was on hand to supervise the cooking of kulawo, a dish made with puso ng saging (banana heart, or bud). It is cooked by mixing it with flaming charcoal, resulting in a smoky, surprisingly meat-like vegetarian entrée. The food was served on Ugu Bigyan’s beautiful earthenware creations—a mixture of culinary and cultural artistry that perfectly matches the spirit of the Kulinarya Tagala.
For more info about the Southern Tagalog culinary and heritage tour, check out Kulinarya Tagala’s Facebook page.