Trips and Eats: Laguna

Eating something new is an essential part of traveling. In fact, some people’s motivation to travel is food. Going to new places is not just about seeing famous landmarks, it’s also about experiencing and digesting (figuratively and literally) another culture.

Recently, San Miguel Pure Foods Culinary Center hosted a “gastronomical and historical tour” of one of Metro Manila’s closest neighbor, Laguna. Located south of the bustling metropolis, the province is a favorite destination of city folks because it’s just an hour away and heaping with tourist spots to visit.

Pila town plaza and San Antonio de Padua church

Laguna is famous for hot springs, theme parks, shopping, nature trails, and so on. Food wise, it’s most famous for buko pie, espasol (tubular sticky rice cake), puto (rice cake) Biñan, and kesong puti (fresh cheese). These are pasalubong staples but when it comes to the province’s cuisine, only a few knows what’s really cooking. The province is not exactly famous for its cuisine like Pampanga, Ilocos, or Bicol are.

So, to discover its hidden treasures, you have to good deep into the province. Skip the tourist areas and visit the less crowded towns instead.

Our first stop was Pila. It’s a small town situated at the southern shorelines of Laguna de Bay. It’s probably one of the most charming places I’ve been to because of its provincial old town vibe. It’s like Baler in Aurora or Taal in Batangas, both of which are brimming with history and local culture.

The Corazon Rivera House, one of the heritage houses of Pila

Pila was declared as a National Historical Landmark because of the number of ancestral houses preserved and maintained in the area and of course because of its significant history. Home to 32 heritage houses, which were built during Spanish and American colonial times, the town is a charming reminder of beautiful town planning and development during the Spanish era. In fact, historians regard Pila as a living example of proper Spanish town planning

One of the houses, which also hosted us, was Corazon Rivera House located across the town hall. The house is being beautifully maintained by Corazon Rivera‘s granddaughter Cora “Tita Cora” Relova. The house was built in the American period and is made of wood and concrete, in red, pink, and white hues.

Tita Cora served us a classic Filipino merienda. Like Biñan, Pila is proud of its puto Pila, a plain white fluffy rice cake, cooked puto sa bilao style, a topped with Star Margarine. This is best eaten with Santa Cruz creamy kesong puti. Maja blanca (coconut pudding with corn kernels) was also served, as well as ice cold fresh buko juice.

Puto pila is a soft and fluffy rice cake best paired with kesong puti

The next stop was Santa Cruz, a town known for its itlog na maalat (salted egg) and kesong puti. This town is quite special because it is home to Aurora Filipino Cuisine restaurant, an eatery that advocates for the preservation of local cuisine. Owned by Chef Day Salonga and partners Chef Mon Urbano and Gel Salonga, the restaurant aims to expose the young generation to traditional Laguna food.

“Laguna cuisine is a melting pot of Quezon and Laguna. Here, we use gata (coconut milk) but our dishes are not spicy. Also the kind of gata squeezed from burnt coconut,” chef Mon explained. “Most of our patrons are older people because the young people don’t have an idea of our food. Having this restaurant is a way to reintroduce our food to the young generation.”

Aurora is housed in the ancestral home of the Salonga family. Built in the late 1920s, it’s one of the beautiful historical landmarks of Santa Cruz. Located on the busy Pedro Guevarra Ave., the house was converted into a restaurant last year.

Aurora Filipino Cuisine in Santa Cruz is housed in the ancestral home of the Salonga family, which was built in the 1920s

During our visit, Chef Day did a demo of one of its bestselling dishes, chicken wings adobo. It’s basically chicken wings cooked adobo style (without soy sauce) then fried to a crisp—fried chicken adobo! Aurora’s resident dessert maker Gel Salonga also demonstrated how to make her bibingka cheesecake. It’s a basic cheesecake recipe with additional ingredients including coconut cream and salted egg used as topping.

The restaurant is also famous for its other dishes including the minanok,(banana heart cooked in burnt coconut cream), tinuto (pinangat-like dish, minced meat with shrimp wrapped in gabi leaves then cooked in coconut milk), inalamangang baboy (Laguna’s version of binagoongan), among others.

Minanok, a traditional dish made from banana heart cooked in burnt coconut cream and served with maruya

Our next stop was San Pablo but the food adventure had to wait until the next morning. We checked-in at Sulyap Gallery Café, a very charming bed and breakfast. Owned and operated by Roy Empalmado, Sulyap looks like an old town in one compound. Its concept is similar to Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar where the owner buys dilapidated old houses and rebuilds them into smaller versions and serve as villas at the inn. Its popular for mixing arts, culture, and food in one place.

We had a cold bottle (or more) of San Miguel Beer and shared interesting ghost stories before calling it a night.

The morning after, we had our breakfast at the bed and breakfast’s courtyard. Sulyap served its flaky bangus and pork tapa along with sauteéd Purefoods corned beef (with potatoes!), Magnolia pancakes, Purefoods Honeycured bacon, Magnolia eggs, and San Mig Coffee.

Sulyap Gallery Cafe is a charming bed and breakfast that preserves Filipino culture by rebuilding old houses in its compound

The next day, before going to Lake Sampaloc, one of the seven lakes in San Pablo, we made a stop at one of the bibingka vendors along Maharlika Highway. Keisha & Keith Plus Abby’s stall is one of the makers of native San Pablo bibingka. What’s different about this delicacy is it’s made of freshly milled rice, bahaw (day old cooked rice), and coconut milk. It’s made even more delicious by a slice of salted egg and a generous brushing of margarine. Another interesting fact is that the mini bibingka is cooked inside a makeshift oven fashioned out of old steel drums that use coconut husks as firewood.

San Pablo bibingka is made of fresh milled rice, bahaw (day old cooked rice), and fresh coconut meat

Upon arriving at Sampaloc Lake, we immediately headed to Café Lago, a restaurant owned by former Broadway actor Tony Marino. The restaurant served us its signature dish, the Café Lago Fried Chicken—crunchy fried chicken slathered with Star Margarine and garlic. My favorite pako salad was also served with it, which balanced out the not-so-healthy fried chicken.

Then Tony’s brother Mandy, explained to us how they are currently maintaining the lake. It was just a few years back when they started to rehabilitate the lake. Previously, it was full of fish pens, illegal settlers, and very polluted. The movement to save the lake proved to be successful as the lake is beginning to look like its old self, albeit slowly.

After this visit to Laguna, I realized that Filipinos really need to see more of the country. If you want your travel to be memorable, trying skipping the tourist spots and discover new places, which may just be a few hours drive away from you.

Lake Sampaloc, one of the seven lakes of San Pablo

Read my Manila Bulletin Lifestyle article here.

Visit www.homefoodie.com.ph for everything about food and recipes of your favorite San Miguel Pure Foods products.

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