Santa Maria’s heavenly delicacies
On Nov. 27, the Santa Maria, Bulacan church will become the Minor Basilica of La Purisima Concepcion. It will be a huge affair with no less than Archbishop Charles Brown, Papal nuncio to the Philippines, officiating the solemn declaration. As a basilica, the church may now become a pilgrim site and receive millions of visitors a year. For the food industry, this is an opportunity to share what may be the greatest attraction of Sta. Maria, next to the basilica itself: chicharon! Almost every province has its own version of chicharon. Cebu is known for chicharon in Carcar; Metro Manila has commercial versions like Lapid’s; but I am biased for the full back fat chicharon from Sta. Maria. Chicharon is deep fried pork rind. Sta. Maria’s has a thick, salty layer of skin with a thick layer of fat underneath that sticks to your teeth after biting into it. It is a blissful and excessive indulgence of pork fat!
To the right of the La Purisima Concepcion church is what I fondly call Calleja de las Chicharon, a street lined with small stores, each selling chicharon. It doesn’t matter which stall you choose; they’re all good!
Two blocks from the church is our ancestral home where we grew up with traditional Bulacan food. My great grandfather, Luis Reyes, known as Ingkong Luis, reportedly had Bulacan hot chocolate instead of coffee every morning. Bulacan hot chocolate is distinguished from the more widely known tablea as it incorporates peanuts. Hence, it comes in paste form. In 2004, I created the brand Nana Meng, an ode to my grand aunt Carmen Reyes, who taught me to appreciate this delicacy. (To order Nana Meng Tsokolate with peanuts, message/Viber 0976-132 4522 or 0908-597 4048.)
A feast for the palate
Also in Sta. Maria is what I consider the best lechon baka (spit-roasted calf). However, you will have to order the whole cow. There is no other way to enjoy this. I have tried the different brands of lechon baka now sold in the market that come in a box with the beef in foil but those just taste like good tapa. Nope, not the same thing. If your family is big enough to enjoy an entire baka or if your bubble will have a party, call Aling Flor 0916-235 6210.
In the neighboring town of Marilao, there is what I call Callejo de Kakanin, a street that you will inevitably pass heading back to Manila via Marilao where you will find store after store of kakanin. The choices range from different kinds of puto or steamed rice cakes; to different kinds of suman or glutinous rice sticks wrapped in banana leaves; to kutsinta, a sticky tapioca and rice cake that is usually orange; and sapin-sapin, layered glutinous rice and coconut cake, usually sprinkled with latik or toasted desiccated coconut flakes. There is also the bibingka that Bulacan is famous for called bibingka malagkit, known in other places as biko. This is a rice cake topped with coconut caramel. For those who cannot enjoy rice, there is also a very good cassava cake in this row, topped with a layer of caramelized flan, known locally as leche flan.
By the way, if you are craving for kakanin but cannot make it to Bulacan, you can order from Chef Jessie’s in Rockwell (landline 8253 4732 or mobile 0915-0960905). She is also a native of Bulacan but hails from Angat. The specialty of her mother, known as Inang Carmen, is sapin-sapin. This is the authentic Bulacan version that does not come in a variety of colors but does have the layers that gave the delicacy its name.
Past the bridge leading to the church is a row of small eateries that offer the best pancit palabok or noodles with shrimp sauce topped with cooked shrimp, tinapa flakes and a variety of other toppings, including crushed chicharon. You may also order this for pick up / take out and it comes in a bilao (a round woven tray). If you are bringing it to Manila, though, make sure to let it breathe in the car or it may spoil on the way.
A famous food souvenir stop in Marilao on the way back to Manila is Rosalie’s, where you can get Bulacan’s famous pastillas, though the town famous for this is not Sta. Maria but San Miguel. I also love yema or sweet custard balls but here they are sold in the shape of a small pyramid.
Come Christmastime, the best puto bumbong is just outside the Sta. Maria Church, which will by then be called the Basilika Minor ng La Purisima Concepcion. Puto bumbong is rice cake made of something called pirurutong, cooked in a bamboo steamer then topped with margarine and niyog (grated coconut / coconut shavings). Let’s hope COVID-19 cases are down, if not gone, by then so we can really enjoy puto bumbong as we should: just outside the church at sunrise—a delicious treat to begin a beautiful day after being filled with the Spirit at dawn mass!
Sharing the joy with kababayans on the upcoming solemn declaration of the church as Minor Basilica! And to those of you who haven’t been to this quaint town, do schedule a food trip … it’s more fun eating in Sta. Maria!
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