ACCORDING to ourselves, we are the best cooks in the country and the most fashionable, too.

We know this to be true because Manileños drive all the way here for a cup of sokolati king batirul. Our sisig is to die for, and even Anthony Bourdain likes Claude Tayag’s pacó (fern) salad.

Updates on President Benigno Aquino III's presidency

We also know that our vanity comes from a long tradition of haute couture started by R.T. Paras, the Salgado School of Fashion, the Angeles Fashion School, all the way down to Marta Teoleco, Patis Tesoro and Gang Gomez (now Dom Martin, OSB).

The annual rigodons organized by social clubs like Circulo Escenico (Bacolor), Circulo Fernandino (San Fernando), Kundiman (Angeles), Tomasian (Sto, Tomas) and Young Generation (Macabebe) were held in dusty basketball courts but you’d be surprised the ladies wore Pitoy Moreno, Ben Farrales and Ramon Valera.

My Ilocano friends in Baguio think Kapampangans are maporma pero wala naman pera, preferring to spend their last peso on clothes than on food.

Actually, there are quite a number of Kapampangans who can’t even cook rice and who need extreme fashion makeover, but we do have a solid reputation for fine cuisine and good fashion sense, don’t we? And some history to back it up, too.

The term ymalan Capampangan (“clothes made by Kapampangans” or “clothes worn by Kapampangans”) was already in vogue as early as the 1600s. It’s there in Fray Francisco Coronel’s book Arte y Reglas de la Lengua Pampanga (1621).

War gave our ancestors a reason to dress up. Fashion probably originated with battle outfits. I can imagine boys and men gearing up for battle in their best finery, looking like peacocks with their feathered headgears and polished breastplates.

In 1630, Fray Juan de Medina wrote that Kapampangan soldiers who joined the Spanish army “present a fine appearance, because the villages come to their aid, each with a certain sum, for their uniforms.” He said Kapampangans from Bacolor were “the richest and best dressed in all of Pampanga.”

In his 1732 Kapampangan dictionary, Vocabulario en la Lengua Pampanga en Romance, Fray Diego Bergaño uses only one word, tinguis, to refer to both “a well-dressed man” and “a well-armed man.”

The adjective matingquis, Bergaño says, describes someone who “girds his belt, tucks up his sleeves, takes his machete, and goes out in a rush to do battle.”

Our culinary skills, on the other hand, came from the bounty of the province—“the richest and most beautiful in the islands,” wrote French traveler Jean Mallat in 1846—which gave our ancestors no excuse to scrimp on ingredients.

The booming egg and sugar industries in Pampanga produced sweets unlike any other in the archipelago: sans rival, tibuk-tibuk, yemas, pastillas de leche, marzipan, turrones de kasuy, leche flan, espasol, saniculas, ensaymada, masa podrida, polvoron, etc.

Our closeness to the colonial masters also gave us access to European and Mexican recipes, allowing us to experiment in the kitchen to concoct local versions of imported dishes (longganisa for chorizo, bringi for paella, bobotu for tamales).

Kapampangan families kept their respective heirloom recipes and competed for VIP guests to their banquets. The Arnedos of Apalit once threw a party in Sulipan with no less than a prince from Cambodia and a duke from Russia as guests. (The Arnedos’ cooks also did the catering for the First Philippine Republic in Malolos.)

But all this pride and vanity really came from a bad situation and rather sad chapter in Kapampangan history.

The same wars that gave our ancestors reason to dress up also caused them untold suffering and death. Kapampangans were always sent to accompany their colonial masters to dangerous missions and expeditions, and to quash rebellions and invasions, sometimes against their fellow Kapampangans.

When the Dutch invaded Luzon, it was Kapampangan soldiers that were thrown to the front line. “Not a single Kapampangan deserted to the enemy,” wrote Fray Juan de Medina.

When the British invaded Manila, it was Kapampangan soldiers, a thousand of them, who were again made to face the invaders. “Their ferocity and courage amazed the English,” wrote the British chronicler A.P. Thorton. “These strange natives died like wild beasts, gnawing our bayonets.”

Amazing but tragic. Can you imagine how many generations of succeeding Kapampangans were not born because of the unnecessary deaths of these brave soldiers? And yet their martyrdom is often questioned and their patriotism ridiculed and never given due recognition.

In 1660, Kapampangans themselves finally revolted against the Spaniards, after farmers were forced to sell their harvests to the colonial government at low prices and leave nothing for their own families. Worse, the same farmers were forced to leave their farms to cut timber for the Cavite shipyards.

The resulting famine in Pampanga forced our ancestors to use their creativity and turn insects, frogs, mice, snakes, and bitter herbs into not just edible but delectable food like kamaru, tinolang tugak, betute, burung talangka, sabo maligosu, etc.

On the rare occasions when they butchered an animal (including dogs), they made sure they wasted nothing—not the jowl, or tongue, or ears, or brain, or skin, or hooves, or blood, tail and entrails, which they made into sisig, kilayin, tidtad, pindang, karikari, adobung iso, etc.

Rich land and suffering people, feast and famine—these contradictions gave Kapampangan cuisine its two faces: the pamangan macualta (rich people’s food like lechon, asado, afritada, menudo, relleno, mechado, bringi, etc.) and the pamangan calulu (poor man’s meals like sigang, paksing demonyus, sabo talilung, suam mais, postri, lagat kamyas, gatas tigri, burung asan, etc.).

Next time you get complimented for your cooking or criticized for your vanity, remember our ancestors paid for it with their own blood.