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Get to know Atching Lillian

Bearer of tradition. Kapampangan chef and food historian Lillian Lising-Borromeo tells the story of the saniculas cookies. Photo by JC Bocaling.
Bearer of tradition. Kapampangan chef and food historian Lillian Lising-Borromeo tells the story of the saniculas cookies. Photo by JC Bocaling.

As part of the food tour, I take visitors to Mexico, Pampanga to have lunch. They leave happy not just because of good food prepared but also after making friends with Atching (Chinese ‘atsi’ for elder sister) Lillian. Sometimes, one of them would find out that a relative of Atching Lillian used to be their neighbor or a family friend. There were also occasions when guests would even find out that they’re distant relatives by some strange coincidence.

What is it about Atching Lillian that makes her so endearing to guests?

Is it the way she carries a conversation? Or the intriguing stories of personalities she has dealt with in the past? Could it be her generosity in sharing recipes or tips on how to cook delicious búro (fermented rice and fish)? Or maybe it’s the food that reminds people of home-cooked meals prepared by their loved ones?

Perhaps, it could be all of the above.

Lillian Mercado-Lising de Borromeo began her life in the kitchen at the age of two. She recalls, “I was given my own space in the kitchen where I would join my maternal aunt Impong Orang (Doña Maura Hizon Lorenzo of Mexico, Pampanga) and my late mother Imang Paquita (Doña Francisca Mercado Lising) as we prepared meals for my maternal grandfather Incong Moning (Don Monico del Rosario Mercado of Sasmuan, Pampanga) and his political friends. I was taught how to cut vegetables and how to properly set the dinner table.”

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Panecillos de San Nicolás.
Antique cookie molds of the Panecillos de San Nicolás. Towns in Pampanga have their specific designs. Photo by Chito Tayag.

She belongs to a family of cooks and since she’s Kapampangan, it’s “expected” that their women would man the kitchen.

That’s not always the case especially with Atching Lillian. She wanted to become a doctor like her father. However, it was her relatives who prodded her to take up a degree in Home Economics.

She gave in and her decision turned out to be a big blessing for the Kapampangan, a people who take great pride in their cuisine. It’s through her that we have heirloom recipes that are kept alive.

In the years that she worked out a successful career in the culinary scene, Atching Lillian would become more known for the tradition of baking the Panecillos de San Nicolás or simply known as the saniculas cookies.

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“It’s one of the oldest cookies in the Philippines brought by the Augustinians. It’s said that miracles were attributed to them. There was this one story when the explorer Magellan crushed the saniculas with his bare hands and threw the pieces from his ship to calm the rough seas. And it did. Thus, making the landing in Limasawa (where the first Mass was said to be heard) possible.” said the Kapampangan chef.


Nicolás of Tolentino (a town in Italy) was an Augustian friar in the 13th century. There were a lot of miraculous stories surrounding his life and one of them makes it to Atching Lillian’s baking demo of the famed cookies.

“His superiors noticing that he (San Nicolás) was in great pain because of too much fasting, made him eat a cooked bird. He was able to eat the wing and he wanted to share his meal with his brethren but suddenly the bird became alive and flew away!”

It was an entertaining story after a filling lunch at her table. Our big sister in the kitchen was able to tell it with gusto that the group stayed glued watching her do her magic with a bowl of cornstarch, egg yolks, third-class flour and butter to bake this blessed bread.

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Visitors have a chance to try their hand in making their own saniculas cookies. We start pressing soft dough on the engraved cookie molds and flattening it using an old rolling pin. Everything seemed to be fine but there would always be a reluctant participant and of course, there would be Atching Lillian’s reassurance and guidance.

Fortunately, the results were good. A guest gets surprised and happy to have a photo with their creation.

Breaking the silence in the kitchen. Atching Lillian's wit makes her demo a fun gathering. Photo by JC Bocaling.
Breaking the silence in the kitchen. Atching Lillian’s wit makes her baking lesson a fun afternoon affair. It’s one of the highlights of the food tour. Photo by JC Bocaling.

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I have been guiding in Pampanga for years and one of my reasons was personal. I wanted to know my roots and also to reconnect but the question is: What’s left for me there? Both of my grandparents are no longer around and it’s just too bad that I wasn’t as interested as now to listen to their stories. Most of my relatives are living outside the province.

My visits to Atching Lillian’s kitchen become some sort of a renewal, a link to my claim that somehow I belong; that I’m a Kapampangan too even though I don’t speak the language; that there’s another place in Pampanga that would welcome me as a visiting relative.

Atching Lillian’s warmth and her genuine feeling of concern made me feel like I’m part of the family. “Because you are family! Did you know that there’s an Ocampo in one of my parents’ side? Hindi ka na iba sa akin. (You’re no longer a stranger to me.)”

I guess it no longer matters if I’m really related to her by blood or not that’s why calling her “Atching” just feels right.