This is your sign to go on a Southern Tagalog food trip

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A spread of dishes including pako salad, sinigang na hipon sa buko, sinantolan, sinaing na bangus and tulingan, chicken inasal, and inihaw na liempo paired with kulawo, mustasa salad, and atsarang kamias, with leche flan from Quezon-based Everyday Eden. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Spending almost three years stuck inside did a number on my well-being. When local travel opened up in 2022, I vowed to explore more of what the Philippines has to offer to make up for that lingering sense of missing out on so much. Starting with road trips to Rizal, Batangas, and Tagaytay, and eventually traveling by air to Negros Oriental and Boracay, I felt a sense of accomplishment in these baby steps to see the world more.

Lately though, it hasn’t been as easy to do consistently given hectic work schedules. In my head, I never have the time. So when I heard that I would be part of Kulinarya Tagala food tour by the San Miguel Foods Culinary Center ahead of Lucban’s colorful Pahiyas festivities this May, I saw my chance to get back to it. The Southern Tagalog region is historically an agricultural center known for its buko and rice — already a good sign that the food would be worth the long journey.

Started by retired resort manager Tina Diasanta-Decal in the mid-2000s, Kulinarya Tagala has been offering guests meticulously organized gastronomic tours throughout the province's numerous towns, such as Tayabas, Sariaya, and Tiaong.

Quezon resident Tina Diasanta-Decal was our tour guide for the trip. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

After filing into a red tourist bus at a busy Petron along SLEX, we listened to Tina give a short introduction of the tour, which is a project near and dear to her as a Quezon native. “During the pandemic, a lot of young enterprising chefs went back to the province, promoting agri-tourism and farm-to-table dishes,” she explained as the bus made its way down the expressway. The tour was to take us to seven stops in two days, a mix of these new farm-to-table restaurants and well-loved heritage locations. Our mission? Discover some prime eating spots in Laguna and Quezon.

Our first stop was brunch at Aurora Filipino Cuisine in Santa Cruz, Laguna (Address: KM 83 National Highway Brgy. Duhat 4009). The restaurant was founded by siblings Day Salonga and Gel Salonga-Datu in 2016 to showcase heirloom dishes from their province. Before lunch, we took a tour of the complex, which includes Ted’s Bed and Breakfast, Ted’s Kitchen, and Ted’s Events Warehouse — all of which were built using repurposed materials like gate grilles, bird cages, metal bric-a-bracs, and wine bottles from the Salonga’s ancestral property. The old world charm of the place makes it a popular destination for weddings and other large-scale celebrations, but the food is just as good a reason to pay it a visit.

The entrance of Aurora Filipino Cuisine. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

From left: The adobong dilaw, inalamang baboy, and sinugnang tilapia fillet from Aurora Private Dining. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

We had our lunch buffet-style, with the ulam highlights prepared with recipes that originated from around the CALABARZON area. The spread included chicken adobong dilaw (said to be from Taal in nearby Batangas), which is a type of adobo made with turmeric instead of soy sauce. I was most excited for the coconut-based dish: the Quezon-originated sinugno na tilapia fillet. Sourced from their backyard, the sauce combination with the slight crunch of the fillet didn’t disappoint. As a binagoongan fan, I declared their inalamang baboy (liempo cooked with alamang) the winner of the meal. Our drink cooler came in the form of a refreshing (and not-too-sweet) pandan iced tea, and we ended the meal with Chef Gel’s torta de pili, which has layers of meringue and pili and chiffon in the middle. This version used Essenso coffee in the icing.

Farm-to-table dining, Quezon-style

Centered around the idea of knowing where your food is grown, farm-to-table dining is often associated with clean eating and sustainable living because it means that dishes served use ingredients sourced from the location’s immediate surroundings. In places like BGC and Makati, the concept has been co-opted by trendy restaurants and higher-than-average prices. For many Quezon-based chefs, farm-to-table simply means a return to tradition.

The Department of Tourism is now pushing for this brand of “farm tourism.” Last year, they accredited 26 different dining and recreational locations in CALABARZON (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon) with the hope that tourists would consider them over crowded tourist spots.

One of these locations is Linang ni LK in Lucban (Address: Luisiana Rd, Brgy. Kalyaat, Sitio Pandak), a resort farm started by Francis Christian Ocoma, also known as Chef Janjie. He built Linang ni LK as a way to go back to nature (Linang, said Tina, has a double meaning to Quezon residents, translating to both “to till” and “bukid”). The kitchen is now headed by Chef Reggie, a former bartender from Coron, Palawan who Chef Janjie trained to run the operations.

Linang ni LK's pancit habhab. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Linang ni LK created the ubetaw, a palitaw-inspired dessert invention that uses their farm-grown ube, made into halaya, and filled into glutinous rice balls. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Here we had the Quezon delicacy pancit habhab (also known as pancit Lucban, after the town it originated from). Topped with edible flowers and Lucban longganisa, the wheat flour-based noodles were placed on a banana leaf wrapped into a square. During a cooking demo for the dish, Chef Reggie explained that the right way to eat the pancit is with your mouth sans utensils, avoiding touching the banana leaf with your nose. It’s harder than it looks (especially with piping hot pancit!), so I opted to have mine on a plate, where I was able to splash it with a dash of their special suka infused with blue ternatea. The afternoon snack was complemented by the farm’s ubetaw, a palitaw-inspired dessert invention that uses their farm-grown ube, made into halaya, and filled into glutinous rice balls. The version they served us that afternoon was even more of an ube overload, with the ubetaw placed in a bowl together with ube ice cream and caramelized coconut milk, with pinipig and ube turon for garnish. Simply put: it was the ube dessert of my dreams, and I devoured it all in a minute.

Bukid Amara is a flower and produce farm in Lucban, Quezon. The farm's landscaping was inspired by an Amorsolo painting. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

For merienda, Bukid Amara served us floral spring rolls made with edible flowers from their garden. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

We entered the bus with stomachs full and minds set for an afternoon siesta. But our journey wasn’t over yet because eight minutes later we were at Bukid Amara (Address: Sitio Aramin Brgy. Lucban), a flower and produce farm owned by Mike Caballes. Mike told the story of how he and his wife sold everything they had in Manila to go back to the province. “We wanted to share the simplicity ng buhay bukid,” he tells us, explaining how their business model was formed on flower tourism.

Equipped with a background in ornamental landscaping, Mike set out to turn the 2.5-hectare land into a scene right out of an Amorsolo painting, complete with a blooming flower meadow, a bahay kubo, a tilapia-filled lake, and a full view of Mt. Banahaw. At ₱100 for entrance fee, it’s not a bad spot for those who want to unplug and enjoy the scenery. Visitors can also try different activities, including fishing and flower/produce picking for a separate fee. For merienda, the team served us floral spring rolls made with edible flowers from their garden, chicken breast, egg omelet, and vermicelli noodles dipped in a classic peanut sauce. We washed it down with a cucumber citrus quencher, which was exactly what we needed after walking around in the mid-April heat.

The Rodillas Yema Cake is one of Quezon's pride and joys. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Rodillas Yema Cake co-founder Juliet Rodillas. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

When in Tayabas, how could we miss a visit to the Rodillas Yema Cake commissary? The bakery, owned by Vincent and Juliet Rodillas, is one of Quezon’s pride and joys, with its red, green, and yellow branding recognizable at many pasalubong centers across Luzon. The couple started their business with a small selection of pastries before introducing the cake that’s become their (literal) bread and butter, expanding the business to the point that all their sales are made through resellers. We got to watch part of the yema cake icing process and taste the newest product developed with San Miguel Foods Culinary Center: the yema ensaymada, a melt-in-your mouth classic Pinoy delicacy, made even better with their signature yema filling.

Learning about Southern Tagalog heritage and traditions

Dinner was at Jardin de Pio (Address: No. 113 National Highway cor. Mangosteen Street, Brgy Calumpang, Tayabas), a Spanish-Italian restaurant named as such because of its proximity to the Padre de Pio sanctuary in Barangay Gibanga. It was here that Tina taught us the proper way to do Quezon’s famous tagayan ritual. “Sabi nga, kung gaano kaiinit ang pagpasok ng lambanog sa inyong bibig, ganun din po kayong tanggap namin sa Quezon,” she said of tagayan etiquette, saying that having a Quezon local say “tatagayan kita” means that you’re a very special guest. “It’s not meant to get you drunk, but to really welcome you in a very special way.” The lambanog is traditionally meant to be taken from just one shared cup.

Our dinner at Jardin de Pio consisted of pizza, paella, salad, and sangria, all made using some of San Miguel Foods Culinary products. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Our last stop of the trip was at the sprawling 6.5-hectare Sitio de Amor in San Pablo, Laguna (Address: Purok Paraiso, San Antonio) the next day. Owner Amor Bondad personally gave us a tour of the property, which she and her husband George built themselves. The ancestral houses — one of which was owned by Tomas Morato Sr. and frequented by Manuel L. Quezon himself — were bought and transferred from Quezon, Paranaque, and San Juan, Laguna. Amor toured us around, telling the stories behind the different furniture pieces she acquired from flea markets and garage sales.

For lunch, we got the chance to learn more about how certain farming techniques can make food taste better from Everyday Eden’s Beth Amat, who describes herself as a former city girl-turned-regenerative farmer. Founded by Beth during the pandemic to promote sustainable food production, Everyday Eden Lifestyle + Cafe offers dining experiences by appointment. All their food comes from the Amats’ organic garden in Barangay Bungoy, Dolores.

Originally located in Calauag, the main house at Sitio de Amor used to be the summer house of Tomas Morato Sr. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

Everyday Eden's lunch spread included sinaing na bangus at tulingan and sinigang na hipon sa buko. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

“We eat with the seasons,” said Beth as she took us through the different processes they use on their farm. Before she and her sister Raphie took us through each of the dishes in their Quezon lunch feast, they explained the secret to making their food taste good: they used the contour of the land to plant their farm. “We also check where the sun is coming from, so it’s a different way of farming and it’s a lot slower than typical farming,” she explained.

Our morning consisted of swimming at the beachfront Seves Hotel and Resort in Sariaya, so the Everyday Eden lunch was the best post-swim meal. The buffet had pako salad, sinigang na hipon sa buko made with fresh Tayabas shrimps (the broth was sweeter because of the buko), sinantolan made from grated santol rind stewed in coconut milk with shrimps, sinaing na bangus, sinaing na tulingan, chicken inasal, and inihaw na liempo (according to Beth, Quezon pork has a bit of sweetness to it), complemented with Quezon side dishes: kulawo (banana blossoms in smoked gata vinaigrette), mustasa salad, and atsarang kamias.

An assortment of coffee, chocolate, caramel, pistachio, and lemon eclairs from Antonas Bread and Pastries. Photo courtesy of SAN MIGUEL FOODS CULINARY CENTER

I was already feeling stuffed when I approached the dessert table by Antonas Bread and Pastries, featuring a tempting selection of eclairs, cheese rolls, and savory turnovers. Nevertheless, I'm glad I decided to try them, because the chocolate eclair was perfect — just the right balance of custard and chocolate icing, while the cheese rolls were equally memorable (they are already higher up on my cheese roll ranking).

The second day concluded on a high, our tummies and hearts a little fuller. The images of palay drying in the summer sun, children playing on the small town streets, and carabaos taking a dip in shallow mud were interesting to see for a city girl who can’t even find time to take a walk outside on a regular day. As far as agri-tourism initiatives are concerned, I was convinced that I need to do this more, to be able to see more of the country beyond the shiny aesthetic-driven tourist traps, complaints of not having enough time be damned. There will always be time.