In Pampanga, the ubiquity of fast food has turned the famed Kapampangan cuisine into a niche fare, or has it?
by J. D. Batac
Getting off the Dau Bus Terminal in Mabalacat City, the weary and potentially famished traveler is immediately assaulted by a cacophony of brightly lit fast food chains: three Jollibees, two Mickey Ds, a Mang Inasal, a Chowking, a Greenwich, a KFC, a Burger King, a Shakey’s, a Max’s, a Mister Donut, and a sprinkling of Mini Stops and 7-Elevens in between, all within walking distance of each other.
The ubiquity of fast food outlets is apparent elsewhere in Pampanga; from smog-choked cities to agro-based municipalities, burger joints and value meals are as common a fixture as the distinct Kapampangan lilt. It’s a sight all too familiar (and comforting) to anyone whose idea of a quick bite requires an easy trip to a counter and a tray of industrially prepared dish served in under three minutes.
But in Pampanga, a province famous for its gustatory imagination, this wholesale embrace for fast food culture is, at its worst, a cultural anomaly. It’s almost akin to passing up on ramen in Tokyo in favor of a club sandwich, or ditching pasta in Italy for a Toblerone bar — it hardly makes any sense.
Centuries ago, the entire province was looked upon favorably by the Spanish colonizers, if only because of the perceived loyalty of the local townfolks as well as the abundance of crops yielded by the province’s rich soil. Such colonial preference resulted in, among others, the assimilation of Castillian culinary tradition with local Malayan fare — a complex, if slightly eclectic, combination that saw the fusion of European methods with Asian flavor.
Over time, this unique mix yielded what came to be known as the Kapampangan cuisine. Time-consuming and picky with ingredients but delectable and almost always decadent, Pampanga’s local cuisine is a diva with an unrepentant superiority complex that sees every other local cuisine outside of the province as uncomplicated enough.
You are, as the adage goes, what you eat. This meant that for Kapampangans, feasting on savory products of pride and honor gave occasion to feelings of unbridled devotion to their own cuisine. It has been said, rather mockingly, that the people of Pampanga are genetically predisposed to believe theirs is the only cuisine that matters, if only to account for their natural predilection to display their disdain for dishes whipped up by someone who was not born in Kapampangan soil.
But such unmistakable pride is arguably under siege in the face of the fast food onslaught. In fact, these days, it’s tough to come across genuine Kapampangan fare without having to venture on a pilgrim of sorts. Betute, or deep-fried stuffed farm frogs, and kamaru, or sauteed mole crickets, are two iconic Kapampangan dishes which, on ordinary days, can now only be had, without guarantee of availability, either at Everybody’s Cafe in San Fernando or at Cely’s in Angeles. Similarly, one would be hardpressed to find a local bakery selling San Nicolas biscuits or a diner serving bringhe, Pampanga’s own version of the Spanish paella yellow with the infusion of turmeric, without acknowledging the difficulty that comes with the task.
Even special occasions, such as annual town fiestas and Christmas holidays, have become less exciting and more standard when it comes to the dishes served. Gone are the days when everything presented on the dining table was made from scratch. Nowadays, it has become way too convenient and cheap to line up at Betty’s or Susie’s for the requisite rice and casava cakes, or order deserts from some anonymous baker posting her wares on Instagram. Those who opt to spend time in the kitchen end up preparing sweet spaghetti and stir-fried noodles, which are both fine, of course, but fail to evoke the drama and the emotions associated with every plateful of, say, the more laborious Kapampangan tropical chicken.
Cheap, quick, and filling, albeit nutritionally dubious, fast food and its strong appeal to Kapampangans is indicative of a province experiencing rapid urbanization and industrialization, as well as the emergence of contemporary norms lending greater value to a fast-paced, always connected, 24/7 lifestyle.
Women of yore had all the luxury of time to whip up fancy dishes at a time when their utility was limited behind the burner, but this does not ring true anymore. Between running errands, raising kids, and managing a career, the contemporary Kapampangan, male and female alike, is pressed for time to wallow in nostalgia when a hazelnut donut or a slab of roasted chicken from Chooks can be easily had without the least fuss. Who has time to prepare chocolate batirul when a tall cup can be filled with ice-cold Slushee in two seconds? Somehow, it’s all been reduced to the economics of convenience.
Despite this, Kapampangans remain proud as ever of their culinary legacy — a legacy that, for enterprising minds, is exploited to stage Pampanga culinary tours designed for tourists oddly enamored with the idea. They haven’t got the slightest clue.
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