Atching Lillian, our big sister in the kitchen

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 this lady that makes her so endearing to strangers?

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? 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 just “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.

* * *

“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. The lady in the kitchen, our big sister, was able to tell it with gusto that the group got glued watching her do her magic with a bowl of cornstarch, egg yolks, third-class flour and butter to bake this blessed bread.

* * *

Visitors had a chance to try their hand in making their own saniculas cookies. They took turns 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 demo a fun afternoon affair. It’s one of the highlights of the food tour. Photo by JC Bocaling.

* * *

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.



Mangan Kapampangan through the lens of the Clasios

I had a wonderful time with the Clasio family. It was their sense of humor that made this tour more fun. I’m beginning to think that this food tour is really for families, fraternities, associations or barkadas. My recent tour with this close-knit family serves as a perfect example.

I was asked to meet Wynzyl’s brother-in-law, Carl, in Taft  at 4:30 in the morning. The gods were on my side because I almost got mugged (this deserves a separate post) before taking a cab to reach the rendezvous. After picking up the rest of the group in Taguig and Las Piñas, we made a quick trip to the town of Guagua.

The group was a bit  surprised to find out that Lechón pugón also known as liemporn will be served for breakfast. Yes, we started the day right and healthy. It was a glimpse of things to come.

Here are some photos taken from the talented lens of Karl Marx Photography.

Lechón pugón. This was the star of the breakfast table.

The Pugón. This is where the magic happens.

The hearty breakfast in Lapid’s Bakery deserved a brief stroll through the old church and a quick stop at Galan’s Chicharon Store. Pampangos also play the Filipino Name Game a lot, from Sinabon (a laundry service in Guagua) and Poracay (a resort in Porac, Pampanga) to its sizes of atchara found in Galan’s.

To each his own poison. Take your pick.

Our next stop was the nearby town of Santa Rita. We took time to visit the Ocampo-Lansang factory, which is known to create those sinful sweets such as the sansrival and turrones de casuy. Our timing was just impeccable because it’s the Duman Festival.

We’re lucky that the doors were still open because Tito Ramon (We could be related because my grandparents lived in the next barangay.) told us that they will close shop early for the fiesta.

Sansrival. Take a bite, it’s all right.

Lunch was served at Atching Lillian’s place. It’s quite interesting to note that she was able to connect with guests that I tour on a deeper level. This time, we found out that her uncle used to be neighbors with the Clasios when they were starting out. Amazing.

Atching Lillian with her apo, Jacob and the Clasios.

We made a quick stop at Carreon’s Sweets for more pasalubong and a brief demo, a secret in making its life-extending plantanillas. What more can you ask for more? ;-)

Plantanillas. The secret’s still kept.

Angeles City was our next stop. We were given a special tour by the museum guide, Kim Tinio. He shared a very interesting story about Culiat, the old name of Angeles and historical figures that shaped this city.

All ears. Kim Tinio describing the Kapampangan kitchen.

The facade of the Holy Rosary Church. We stopped by this beautiful church before leaving for San Fernando.

It’s probably a fitting way to ask for blessings and space in our belly before heading to Everybody’s Café. Mark, the photographer of the family, needed it most particularly because of the exotic food served.

Betute. It’s frog stuffed with minced meat. Really, really good.

My tour with the Clasios ended on a good note. They were happy and very much full. I am thankful that they decided to take my tour. One of the things that I like about this group is the way the Clasios (especially the brothers) treated each other. They reminded me of my time growing up with my brothers.


Let’s have lunch at Mexico, Pampanga

The dishes served by food historian and chef extraordinaire Lillian Lising de Borromeo are the main draw when one visits Mexico, Pampanga. This talented lady prepares traditional Kapampangan cuisine that one would savor. She happily shares her knowledge too, especially in baking the Panecillos de San Nicolas.

Be Atching Lillian’s apprentice for one day. Join our tour and learn more from one of the renowned names in Pampango cooking!