ONE of my favorite things to do at the Cabalenan, our downtown or poblacion area in San Fernando, is going to the old public market, or palengki, and seeing it with fresh eyes. My favorite palengke tour buddy is kuya Poch Jorolan who navigates his way around the market like the true-blue Fernandino boy that he is, his family’s Everybody’s Cafe has its humble start there prior to becoming the penultimate iconic Kapampangan restaurant that we know so well.
Our palengke walking tour this time started walking along Abad Santos street, at the side of the San Fernando Metropolitan Cathedral. Near the sidewalk are the vendors who sell fruits in season, like camachile or Manila tamarind (Pithecolobium dulce) and kaimito or star apples (Chrysophyllum cainito) this time of the year, as well as other imported fruits. I passed by a small stall selling local favorites like puto seco and mamon tostado.
Still in view are the old signages of the general merchandise stores at the Assumpta building, some of which have survived when others have not, Apung Gary is now LBS, but Guan Yek, Guan Huat, Ong Yu still have the same names, as well as my old haunts Bundalian’s and Miranda Hatters, while LA Bakeshop sports a refurbished look with brick details and a yellow canopy, but serves the same great tasting Spanish bread and cheese breads.
Across the street is Lolet Mixed Nut, which sells fried mani (peanuts) and balitug (corn) which remain a hit through the years, although there is now a younger vendor in place of the original Lolet who has become sickly since.
From the fried peanut stand we passed through the stalls that sell pasalubong stuff like Paning’s butong pakwan (watermelon seeds) which preceded the pasalubong centers we have along major thoroughfares nowadays, and dropped by the fruits and vegetable section where one or two stalls still sell areca nuts, betel leaves, and lime or api, that carcinogenic concoction which gives old ladies and gents a bit of a high. I remember some of my grand aunts and uncles who did “nga nga” or “mama” when I was a little girl.
Navigating through the various dry good stalls which sell everything from curity cloth diapers to Hanes shirts, shoes and fabric, we finally reached at 11 in the morning the “pwesto” near Salud Dry Goods, just a tiny chair and several baskets of kakanin, which sells merienda fare such as slices of gandus (or gabi) with shredded ngungut or coconut meat, pepalto or palitaw, and kiltian mais or binatog.
I have good memories of my grandmother Apung Uring who made kiltian mais from freshly harvested white corn with a dash of salt, shredded coconut meat, and gatas damulag or carabao’s milk. There is also a small bilao of candies such as yema, caramel, pastillas de leche just across the alley.
More freshly cooked merienda fare is found near the alley where the old school beauty parlors are located, most notable of which is Dading Snack Corner, now being run by her daughter, but still sells hot off the pan papaya fritters or okoy, karioka or deep fried sticky rice balls, banana cue, sweet kamote fries, among others. The best seller is the very yummy mongo turon.
As it was nearing lunch time, we headed over to the veritable feast that is Magg’s Canteen which has several branches within the palengke. This is either a remnant or the contemporary reincarnation of the so-call “totobits” of the olden days. The menu assortment alone can give any Kapampangan restaurant a run for its money, but it seems to cater mostly to locals still, including the City Hall crowd.
Other go-to eating places in the area are Pennilyn’s Cafe which now occupies the former pwesto of Candaba Kitchenette, and right beside it is Our Cafe.
We finally ended our walking tour looking for curios and other crafts, and I was delighted to find kurang-kurangan, clay kitchen sets, tirador or slingshots, and even the burillos or whips with bamboo slats used by flagellants during the Holy Week.
The old public market alone warrants its own cultural map, which we would be delighted to pursue as an office project. Its significance goes beyond the culinary and historic, but throughout its existence has become a social and cultural icon on its own.