One of my most cherished food memories was when my family and I would go to my dad’s hometown in Pampanga to attend its annual fiesta. The trip would be hot and dry and dusty, and occasional tantrums would ensue… but by the time we reached the gate of our uncle’s house, we were happy to see our cousins and to ooh and aah over the activity in the dirty kitchen (which, for those not familiar with it, is the part of a traditional Filipino house where the dirty prep is done).
At the dirty kitchen, in front of the sprawling backyard, we would watch our aunt, uncle, and the cooks prepare the lunch over big pots and kaldero, watch the fresh hito (catfish) swim in a planggana of water before they get grilled, and sneak in bites of the tibuk-tibuk and other rice cake varieties already spread out on the table. We would then be called to have some breakfast, typically pindang damulag! It had a gamey, sour flavor (vinegar-y version of tocino I always thought) that my 10-year-old self didn’t flinch at all when I eventually found out that it was fermented meat from carabao, not exactly what you might find in a supermarket in Manila.
By the time lunch came, I would pile my plate with Kapampangan fiesta staples such as asadong matua, kare-kare and lechon. (I was a carnivore early on.) My dad used to make me try the buro or balao-balao (fermented rice) to go with the grilled catfish but I found the smell revolting. Only when I reached my twenties, did I finally acquire a taste for its soupy, sour assault to the senses. By then, trips to Pampanga were no longer an annual activity and once deprived of such fascinating dishes, I craved and searched for them; they’re not your typical everyday fare so my dad wasn’t keen on cooking them.
Almost a month ago, I got to revisit my Kapampangan roots when our department at work took a field trip to Bale Dutung. For several years, I’ve only heard good things about this private restaurant that is also home of artist, author and chef Claude Tayag and his wife Mary Ann. It gained even more following and fame when Anthony Bourdain paid them a visit in a feature on the Philippines in his then-show, No Reservations.
Located in a subdivision in Angeles, Pampanga, it is open to the public for pre-arranged lunches.But making a reservation is not that easy as you need to be a group of 12 and the cost is more than P2,000 per person (at least for the menu we had). Pricey, yes, but if you think about it,they roast an entire pig for the meal and on top of that, you get a generous helping of food stories from Mary Ann, who will strongly advise you to “taste everything until the end of the meal.” Words you’ll need to keep in mind when you reach that point when you think you can’t go any more further. Not. Another. Bite.
Bale Dutung (which means ‘house of wood’) offers different menus: there’s now the Bourdain menu (or what Tayag served the travel host during his visit) and the Lechon 5 ways menu, which is what was served to us. But before the meat-heavy meal, we had crackers served with three dips: Bale Dutung’s Claude 9 Taba ng Talangka (crab fat), Burong Hipon (fermented shrimp rice) and pesto made with local pili nuts. Good thing they were only served in small plates because we could have kept eating them and it was only the start.
Some of the dishes were Kapampangan classics (the fermented shrimp rice, lechon, kare-kare, sisig), others a reinvention of other regional dishes (inasal na manok) or just dishes I had never encountered (or paid attention to) in those past Pampanga trips (ensaladang pako, lumpiang ubod).
Address: Paul St. corner Francis St. Villa Gloria Subdivision San Jose Angeles City 2009; check their website, http://www.baledutung.com for details on how to get there, (045) 625-0169