What a culinary pilgrimage reveals about Laguna

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One of the staples in Laguna's culinary tradition is the bibingka. In photo: Bibingka made with coconut meat, Star Margarine, and Magnolia Cheezee. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL PUREFOODS CULINARY CENTER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Food is one of the constant things in the changing landscape of Laguna.

Its culinary specialties are products of the southern Tagalog context, witness to the rise and fall and rehabilitation of Laguna’s natural and manmade attractions, particularly its lakes and old houses. While the food may also change with the times, they remain, at their core, the same.

The themes are consistent in the Laguna food crawl arranged by San Miguel Purefoods Culinary Center: initiatives to remember and restore a time long past, and recipes handed down from one generation to another. Below are some of the province’s highlights, worthy of a culinary pilgrimage.

2 Puto.JPG Unlike the common circular tops, the puto in Pila is cut in squares. Photo by REGINE CABATO

Pila

First in line is Pila, a quaint, quiet town east of Calamba and north of San Pablo. Its name means “soil,” and it was the site of the Locsin excavation, an archaeological project that led to prehistoric discoveries, in the 1960s. The town center was declared a National Historical Landmark in 2000.

Here, we have merienda at the Corazon Rivera House. It is the ancestral home of Cora Relova, co-founder of the Pila Historical Society Foundation and our host. She has been working on historical conservation here for 23 years.

We are served a white merienda: puto, maja blanca, and queso puti with buko juice. The puto is cut in squares, unlike the common circular tops, with a consistent texture; the maja blanca, a coconut milk dessert, is topped with desiccated coconut.

Although old houses may be thought of as stuffy, the windows here are wide open and overlook the town plaza, where the grass is being restored.

Fronting the plaza is the 400-year-old parish of St. Anthony de Padua. Behind the altar is a hidden staircase where a relic of St. Anthony can be viewed. Relova’s nephew swears you can pray to it, and you will find things that you have lost.

Facing the church, from the other side of the plaza and just across the Rivera house, is the munisipyo.

6 Cora Relova.JPG Cora Relova is the co-founder of the Pila Historical Society Foundation, and has been working on historical conservation here for 23 years. Photo by REGINE CABATO

“There are two kings in Pila: the priest and the mayor,” Relova explains.

Declared a nobletown by the Spanish regime, Pila has experienced history’s kindness. Relova narrates that the town fed 3,000 guerillas and their families during World War II. But they also got along with the Japanese; when they would come up to the houses, Relova’s father would play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the piano, and the Japanese would clap along. When it was time to leave, she said, they cried, for nowhere else had they felt so far from war than when they were in Pila.

Old houses surround the plaza; even the convenience store and drugstore fit into this old town aesthetic. The nostalgic architecture and preservation efforts for the town prompted comments from guests and travelers, Relova said, that Pila was the Vigan of the south. But she smiled, almost a little wryly, as she said they had no intention of making such a comparison; Pila is a small town, and it revels in its humility.

“Vigan is grand; Pila is charming,” Relova corrected. “We don't want to be grand.”

Even its maja blanca, sweet and peppered with corn, is at once striking in its ordinariness, but never bland.

To inquire about how to go around Pila, message Heritage Town of Pila on Facebook.

3 Minanok.JPG Minanok is one of the heirloom recipes in Aurora Filipino Cuisine in Sta. Cruz. Photo by REGINE CABATO

Sta. Cruz

Sta. Cruz is considered the melting pot of Quezon and Laguna. It is here that Day Salonga set up the ancestral house-turned-restaurant called Aurora Filipino Cuisine, along with his sister, Gel Salonga, and business partner, Mon Urbano.

“Since the majority of the ancestral homes that were turned into restaurants in Laguna are also owned by chefs, guests get an authentic experience of how it was like dining during the time of our great grandparents,” Day Salonga explained.

The restaurant boasts heirloom recipes, mostly concentrated on reviving southern Tagalog cuisine — which means gata is a feature in most dishes.

One of these specialities is minanok, which is made not out of chicken, but of puso ng saging — banana heart — cooked in burnt coconut cream sauce, with maruya, or banana fritter, on the side. There is also tinuto, minced shrimps and coconut meat wrapped in taro leaves with coconut cream sauce.

1 Gel Salonga, Mon Urbano, Day Salonga.JPG The founders of Aurora Filipino Cuisine: Gel Salonga (left), Day Salonga (bottom), and Mon Urbano (right). Photo by REGINE CABATO

5 Alamangang baboy.JPG Inalamangang baboy, fresh alamang sauteed in pork. Photo by REGINE CABATO

Other specialties are the crispy adobong tadyang na bakang Angus — Angus short ribs twice cooked — and inalamangang baboy — fresh alamang sauteed in pork. There’s also the 1920s chicken adobo, a dry recipe by Isidra Guevara that was published in the congressional wife cookbook.

For dessert, order the bibingka cheesecake, a charming combination of two favorite meriendas. Gata in the cheesecake gives the dish the bibingka element, and it is topped by slices of salted egg that contrast the sweet richness under the surface.

The food, deliciously drenched in its milky gata but never too wet for comfort, affirm the whitewashed walls of the ancestral house.

Aurora Filipino Cuisine is located on P. Guevara Street in Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

San Pablo cuisine (Left) Buttered chicken with Star Margarine and pako salad from Cafe Lago, and (right) fried bangus from Sulyap Gallery Cafe in San Pablo. Photos courtesy of SAN MIGUEL PUREFOODS CULINARY CENTER

San Pablo

Sulyap is a charming bed and breakfast that might have come straight out of the pages of “Noli Me Tangere,” restored in full color. Its name, owner Roy Empalmado says, invokes a glimpse of history — “sulyap sa nakaraan.”

In front of the bedrooms and restaurant is an antique museum, formerly a school, that gathers furniture and paintings, among other items.

Empalmado has taken to purchasing and restoring the houses in line with his advocacy of preserving heritage. Old houses are harder to find in San Pablo, he says, because many of them were burned during World War II. But there is nothing quite like the satisfaction of seeing an old house restored.

“I can't get enough of it,” Empalmado admits. “I'm just an instrument for rebuilding ... Ang sa akin lang, paano ko maisasauli?

Breakfast is provided — the honeycured bacon and sauteed corned beef were notable — but also on the menu was Sulyap’s fried bangus and sweet, soft pork tapa.

The bed and breakfast is only a ten-minute ride from Sampaloc Lake. Before heading there, the company had a bibingka stop along Maharlika Highway.

We stop at Keisha and Keithe plus Abby Special Bibingka, run by a mother and daughter. There are at least eight stalls along the road, and even more when bibingka is in season. The store opens at 4 a.m. and closes at noon, producing as many as 300 pieces of bibingka a day.

3 Roy Empalmado.JPG Roy Empalmado, the owner of Sulyap. He has taken to purchasing and restoring the houses in the area in line with his advocacy of preserving heritage. Photo by REGINE CABATO

2 Sulyap Gallery Cafe.JPG Here is the image that Laguna cuisine invokes: your grandmother’s house by a lake, a fresh breeze blowing through the open window, and a plate of steaming merienda at the table. In photo: Sulyap Gallery Cafe. Photo by REGINE CABATO

The rice cakes in Laguna are prepared differently from elsewhere: old rice, baking powder, and an alangan mix topped with Star margarine are subjected to top and bottom heat. The alangan, true to its name, refers to the hesitant stage of coconut meat when it is soft and white, before it hardens into buko. The bibingka is wrapped in dahon ng saba, because no other banana leaf has as sweet and aromatic a flavor.

At Sampaloc Lake, the largest of the seven lakes of San Pablo, rehabilitation is also ongoing. Overlooking the lake is the simple and quaint Cafe Lago, owned by brothers Tony and Mandy Mariño. The former is a retired Broadway actor, while the second has dedicated his advocacy to restoring the lake that they grew up with.

Cafe Lago is telling of the owners’ craving for a quiet life by the lake. Tony, who lived in New York for 30 years, has since realized showbiz was not for him.

The foundation that Mandy founded, Lingao sa Pitong Lawa, has been working on cleaning up the lake since 1998. This included the construction of parks to replace beer joints, clearing the lilies and fish pens that had overcrowded the lake, and the relocation of informal settlers by the lake to a Gawad Kalinga community less than a kilometer away.

Meanwhile, Tony cares for the ferns that you might be able to taste in the refreshing pako salad. He said the other guests go for binagoongan or salpicao, but for this trip, we are served with buttered chicken. The fried halo-halo is a treat — the ingredients of the Filipino dessert special are wrapped like turon and topped with ice cream.

Tony and Mandy Marino Brothers Tony (left) and Mandy (right) Mariño, the owners of Cafe Lago. Photos courtesy of SAN MIGUEL PUREFOODS CULINARY CENTER

Here is the image that Laguna cuisine invokes: your grandmother’s house by a lake, a fresh breeze blowing through the open window, and a plate of steaming merienda at the table.

While the backdrop where this cuisine is prepared is nostalgic, even dreamy, the food is very much present — steaming, sweet, and real, a testament to time then, now, and after.

Visit Sulyap at Barangay Del Remedio, Cocoland Compound, and Cafe Lago on Dagatan Boulevard along the lake. Bibingka along Maharlika highway costs roughly ₱144 a dozen.