Tara at Magsalo sa Kusina ni Atching Lilian

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Atching Lilian Borromeo is a true Kapampangan icon.

I picture me in the first grade, waking up in the wrong side of the bed and refusing to go to school. I am pretty certain that I was not the only one.

I was stubborn as a rock, and my father would have no other choice but to drive from Taytay, Rizal to Sta. Ana, Manila, to leave me in my grandmother’s care as he and my mother went to work for the day. In the car, the phantom smell of instant noodles would start wafting through the air, I knew that a bowlful of comfort awaited on her table. And I was right. She would be standing at her door, waiting for us. She would lead me to the kitchen uttering half-Tagalog, half-Kapampangan expressions I never understood. She would watch me eat, bathe me after, then let me play with my cousins in the house. And it would turn out to be a good day. No wrong side of the bed to wake up from.

I am not entirely sure if it is biological, but our grandparents will always have a special place reserved in our hearts. Memories with them will always be our fondest, and their presence will always bring a sense of warmth and comfort. Most of us remember our grandmothers for the food they lovingly prepare for us, and our grandfathers for tales best told of their childhoods.

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Meeting Atching Lilian Lising-Borromeo is like an encounter with my own grandmother. At 75, she is still as sharp as a knife. At first sight, Atching Lilian may seem reserved, but as they say, still waters run deep. She is as passionate as she is experienced in the art of cooking; her energy is unbelievable for her age, in a very good way. We chatted in between mouthfuls of pancit, sisig, and her iconic brazo de mais, in true Kapampangan fashion.
Like most Kapampangans, Atching Lilian comes from a long line of mixed heritage. Her family tree is peppered with notable names from the province: Mercado, Lising, Hizon. Names of people considered talking cookbooks in the Kapampangan culinary tradition.

Mahilig sa pagkain pero hindi nagluluto. Alam nila ang dapat gawin pero bibig lang nila ang nagsasalita.

Coming from a clan that contributed greatly to the cultural and culinary identity of Pampanga, Atching Lilian is keen to point out a distinct characteristic of Kapampangan behavior. “Ang ugali ng Kapampangan, kapag dumating ang bisita, ang unang tanong, “Mangan na ka?”” She believes this stems from the Kapampangan’s unquestionable love for cooking and eating.

“At an early age, I was exposed in the kitchen,” Atching Lilian recalls. She grew up in her grandmother’s house, where she learned how to cook by watching. “Sabi ng ima ko, kaysa mga manika, mas gusto ng lola ko na may dala akong isang kutsilyo, isang kutsara, at dahon. Kapag nagpupukpok iyong kusinera niya, gusto niya ako rin, nagpupukpok,” Yet in spite of the background and the rearing, young Lilian did not see herself embarking on a life’s journey with food.

Like her father, Atching Lilian wanted to become a doctor, but her conservative family chose home economics for her, which did not exactly sit well with her. Like any youth rebelling against tradition, Atching Lilian took longer to finish school and deliberately refused to put years’ worth of learning into practice. In the rare times she did, it was with intense exasperation.

Kapag gumagawa ako ng ensaymada o gumagawa ako ng San Nicolas cookies, doon sa minamasa ko nilalagay iyong inis ko,” she recalls with a laugh. Little did she know that these pastries she so frustratingly made would change her life forever.

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Atching Lilian looked at it all like an old friend she wanted to reconnect with. And reconnect she did. “Ang ginawa ko, I went back to the grassroots of cooking. For six years, I did research about Kapampangan cooking.”

Like any rookie entering the big ball game, Atching Lilian had to start somewhere. She tried her hand at teaching home economics in schools and working at hotels. But what really made a career as a fully-fledged cook was an old-fashioned cooking contest. The first Great Maya Cookfest with Nora Daza became Atching Lilian’s ticket to fame. She and her mother participated in the competition, and while the latter lost in a weekly final, she made it to the end. “Isa iyon sa mga stepping stone para lumakas ang loob ko. Nagkaroon ako ng kumpiyansa sa sarili ko,” she shares.

Admittedly, her return was a bit too late. A good number of Kapampangan recipes were never documented, and some cooks who privy to the province’s most prized secret recipes had already passed on, their secrets passed on with them, lost forever. When Atching Lilian decided to take it upon herself to care for the culinary heritage of Pampanga, she did so supporting the idea that recipes ought to be shared and passed on for generations to come. One of these recipes is that of the San Nicolas cookie.

Named after the San Nicolas de Tolentino, a miracle healer and the patron saint of bakers, the San Nicolas cookie was the answer to an uncontrollable wastage of egg yolks in the 18th century, when egg whites and shells were used a brick adhesive for building churches and several other structures during the Spanish occupation.

Ang mga mayayaman dito sa Mexico, nag-aral sa Sta. Rita, Pampanga kung saan may colegio ang mga madreng Domincan. Tinuro iyang recipe na iyan para ma-solve ang problema. Isa sa mga estudyante ang great grandmother ko, si Alejandra Andrea Hizon Lorenzo,” Atching Lilian reveals. The original wooden molds used simple designs, but because Kapampangans are very artistic and flamboyant, they came up with new molds, each wealthy clan had their own unique design, like a family coat of arms worn proudly. Atching Lilian’s iconic design is leaf-shaped, among many other hundred-year-old molds she keeps to this day.

Lilian recalls a time when she was seven or eight, and assigned to help her grandmother out with their heirloom ensaymadas, holiday staples in Pampanga. “Ang ensaymada kasi namin ay gawa sa 40 egg yolks. At ang sabi sa akin, kapag nakagawa ako ng ensaymada, bibigyan ako ni Santa Claus ng gift. All my life hindi ako nakakita ng laruan, kaya nagsulat ako na sana bigyan niya ako ng doll.” Her first batch of ensaymadas were hard as stone, but with fiery motivation, Atching Lilian persisted and made a better batch after several attempts. “Maaga akong nagising nang Pasko, nakita ko talaga mayroon akong manika. May sound, gumagalaw ang mata. First time kong magkaroon ng manika. Lumuhod ako sa tuwa, ginising ko ang daddy ko, sabi ko binigyan ako ni Santa Claus kasi gumawa ako ng ensaymada.” From then on, Atching Lilian understood that Christmas in Pampanga was not something taken lightly.

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She recalls several other Kapampangan Christmas practices from her childhood; the most important being processions of patron saints and handmade lanterns. “Bawat barrio dito sa Mexico, may santo. Dinadala iyon sa bayan kasama iyong mga parol para sa prusisyon tuwing December 24.” Children carrying lanterns in the shapes of pigs, dragonflies, and roosters filled the roads and lit the way. Atching Lilian’s grandmother, Doña Maura Hizon Lorenzo, would feed the townsfolk before they returned to their homes for their own intimate celebrations. Today, the parade carries on every Christmas Eve, albeit less extravagantly.

Even the tradition of serving food has evolved. “Kumakain kami ng Golden Delicious apples tuwing Christmas lang. Kakain kami ng castañas tuwing Christmas lang. Tapos kakain kami ng pabo tuwing Christmas, birthday o fiesta lang.” Now, these foods have become readily accessible, and there is no more need to wait for Christmas. “Kasi may innovation na, naglalagay na sila ng bago, wala na iyong luma,” Atching Lilian says.

Not that innovation is on the wrong side of the culinary equation; it is only inevitable for the cooking life to improve and become convenient, from technology down to ingredients. But while everyone rides the waves, Atching Lilian chooses to wait on the shore for a very insightful reason. “Cooking now has reached its peak. Kumuha ka ng baso at punuin mo ng tubig. Saan mapupunta iyong sobra? Down. That’s why I returned to the grassroots of cooking.” And a lot of people followed suit: traditional cooking gained a newfound appreciation. Ang Kusina ni Atching Lilian, her ancestral home where she still resides, quickly became part of a culinary itinerary. Tourists can watch her prepare heirloom recipes using centuries-old implements. Atching Lilian stands between Pampanga’s colorful past and its present day, serving as old guard to the province’s gastronomic origins with every taste and every bite of her traditional fare.

As we wound down the feature, I realized that Atching Lilian’s advocacy tries to teach us that as we go through life, we find ourselves attached and fascinated with the musings of modern life, but we will always seek comfort in the familiar. The same way we still run to our grandparents at first sight of them. The same way I wish there were a hot bowl of instant noodles on the table, at the end of a bad day. The same way we anticipate Christmas all year round. The same way I’ll be looking forward to visiting Atching Lilian again for another chat and another packet of her San Nicolas cookies.

Words by PATRICIA BAUN
Recipes by ATCHING LILIAN BORROMEO
Photography by TARISH ZAMORA
Hair and Makeup by PEA GONZALEZ

This article was originally published in the December 2015 – January 2016 issue of Breakfast Magazine.