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I didn’t really know much about the province of Tarlac other than that, before the SCTEX Highway was constructed, one had to travel practically the length of it via MacArthur Highway (and, man, did it take really long back then!) to get to Baguio. Plus that the political families of the Aquinos and our trusty household helpers come from that province. But about Tarlaqueño cuisine? I knew next to nothing.

It has been said that Tarlac is the most multicultural among the Central Luzon provinces. Geographically long and landlocked, the province is a hub of a lively mixture of Ilocanos, Pangasinenses, Pampangos, Nueva Ecijanos, and Tagalogs. Depending on what town you are in, a Tarlaqueño can speak Kapampangan, Ilocano, Pangalatok, or solid Tagalog, or all of the above dialects. So it is safe to assume that even the province’s cuisine reflects this flavorful mélange?

I found that out for myself this past Christmas season when my family and I took a road trip exploring several towns of the province for the “Belenismo sa Tarlac” festival — an annual tradition that promotes the art of Belen-making and the “bayanihan” spirit among the people of Tarlac. And, as is often the case especially among Filipinos, a road trip turns into a food trip. Since the magnificent belens are best viewed at night, with the nativity tableaus all beautifully lit up and glowing against the darkness of provincial towns, we first fortified ourselves with a merienda cena in Tarlac City at Nay’s House.

I thought at first my cousin said “nice house” … and indeed it was! Even despite having a couple of resident ghosts at that! A charming ancestral house of the Panlilio/Barons, perhaps of the early 20th century post-colonial style with subtle Art Deco touches added, which has been converted into a very homey dining salon, Nay’s House is named after Ima Ninay Baron. One of her daughters, Josefina Baron-Sawit, is currently running the operations, although “Nay” remains active as Chairman of the Board.

We enjoyed a simple yet satisfying merienda cena consisting of Pancit Palabok, Fried Lumpia, Sweet Saba with Sago, and authentic Tibok-tibok with latík, all laid out on a buffet table. The restaurant serves what I call “D-I-Y Pancit Palabok”. Yes, a do-it-yourself dish where you ladle on the various palabok — which means garnishings or embellishments — such as a rich and golden shrimp sauce and toppings such as fresh shrimp sauteed in atsuete, boiled and diced pork, crushed crispy chicharon, tinapa flakes, fried tofu, scallions, toasted garlic, and hard-boiled eggs. For me, it was the best Pancit Palabok I have ever had! Everything was just so fresh and flavorful. And the fried lumpia had slivers of sweet yam or camote in it to balance the sourness of the garlicky vinegar you dip it in.

The dessert that disappeared almost as soon as it was served was the tibok-tibok. It vanished before I could even take a photo! It was that coveted. Tibok-tibok is a native kakanin or dessert pudding like maja blanca but richer, smoother, and more velvety. Instead of coconut milk, it is made of creamy and, yes, high-fat carabao’s milk. A touch of the juice of local lime or dayap cuts the cloying richness and gives the pudding a subtle tang. The word “tibók” means “heartbeat”, and “tibok-tibok” can refer to pulsating or palpitating. I thought it meant one’s heart palpitates in anticipation of the silken deliciousness of this dessert. Although that may be true, tibok-tibok “describes how you can tell when the pudding is done” — a dessert blogger named Rianne wrote that, as her aunt explained it, it starts to bubble, just barely breaking through the surface so it looks like it’s pulsating – like a beating heart”. How interesting!

Another interesting Tarlac restaurant we tried was the Coconut Grill Restaurant of Azaya Garden and Resort in the town of Capas. Capas is well-renowned for the World War II concentration camp where tens of thousands of Filipino and American soldiers participated and died in the Death March from Bataan. A soaring monument set atop Mt. Samat marks this legacy. To this day, I still get goosebumps, as if sensing the presence of unsettled spirits, traveling between the ancient trees along MacArthur Highway in Capas.

Also owned by the Baron family, the Coconut Grill Restaurant at the Azaya Garden and Resort in Capas serves up spectacular examples of Tarlac’s style of cooking, which is very strongly influenced by Kapampangan cuisine, as well as familiar dishes with a surprising spin, such as Pancit Buco, Sinigang na Inasal, or Ginapos na Manok. Should you decide to take the longer road up to La Union of Baguio, the place is a perfect pit-stop to fuel up on good food and recharge.

A restaurant we missed going to (due to time constraints) is called Isdaan, in the town of Gerona. Aside from their specialities of fresh seafoods, they have here what is referred to as the tacsiapo wall — you throw plates, utensils, bowls, whatever you get your hands on against the wall while shouting “Tacsiapo!!!” as loudly and vehemently as you can! The expletive is Kapampangan for “how dare you?!?” or “shame on you!!!” A fun and great way to release your stress and unleash the demons inside you. Too bad we didn’t get to go this trip — I would have wanted to try my hand at smashing dishes against a wall, Greek style.  I’m sure we would have had a smashing (wink-wink) good time.