Pampanga is known as the culinary capital of the Philippines, and it’s a province with a proud tradition of heirloom dishes and sophisticated tastes. Chef J Gamboa attributes this to the abundance the province has always xperienced. Situated in the central plains of Luzon, Pampanga’s many rice fields and rivers have provided for the region for generations.
J’s family has owned the iconic Milky Way Café since the 1960s. The café, which serves well-loved family recipes, is just one of the multiple establishments he oversees in the family’s restaurant enterprise. “In Pampanga, we always eat complete meals. Even if it’s just a simple lunch, you will be served soup, vegetables, rice, fish, meat, fruit and dessert,” he explains. “With each meal, all the flavors and textures need to contrast and complement one another. None of the dishes will repeat a flavor. We are also brought up to care about food, so what we serve is always well seasoned, well prepared and very tasty. This is just for a regular meal, so you can just imagine what it’s like during fiesta season when everyone wants to show off.”
The elements of a Kapampangan boodle
The Milky Way Café does not actually serve boodles, but J believes that crispy pata (pork leg) would definitely be part of a Kapampangan boodle fight spread. “Every festive occasion needs to have lechon (roast pig),” he says. “We just made it easier to eat by serving it in the form of crispy pata.”
Fresh tomatoes and red eggs
Every meal in Pampanga is expected to have balanced flavors and textures. The red eggs add a dose of saltiness, while the tomatoes add a hint of freshness to the spread.
Soft shell crab with taba ng talangka and calamansi
True to the Kapampangan reputation of innovating in the kitchen, J serves the taba ng talangka (crab fat) with soft shell crab instead of the usual prawns, making it much easier to eat and enjoy. The citrusy calamansi serves as a contrasting flavor.
In this trademark dish of the Milky Way Café, hito (catfish) is fried to crispy perfection. “We serve it with bagoong (fermented fish), suka (vinegar) and mustasa (mustard) leaves,” says J.
Vegetables come in the form of lumpiang ubod (palm heart rolls). Its sweet sauce is served on the side.
Morcon is a dish of rolled beef, stuffed with chorizo, tocino (sweet cured pork), pickles and carrots, then braised in tomato sauce. “The Spanish also have a morcon, but it’s more of a chorizo,” says J. “The Filipino version is derived from a Mexican dish that first came from Spain.”
J added some kropuk aka kropek (prawn-flavored crackers) for some texture.
This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue of Smile magazine.