--- Watch dulce prenda and much more in the brand-new series Vanishing Foods, Sundays 6pm 21 March-9 May on SBS Food and the via SBS On Demand ---
You would think a food and travel writer of 23 years would have tasted almost all of the delicacies of her home culture. But it was only two weeks ago that I learned about dulce prenda, a biscuit made in Bacolor, Pampanga in the Philippines. I even asked some Filipino chefs about it, but they too have not heard of this hidden treasure. I got in touch with relatives and friends who grew up close to the town of Bacolor. They had not heard of dulce prenda either.
Thankfully, I found Atching Lillian Borromeo, an 80-year-old Filipino in the province of Pampanga in the Philippines who is passionate about all things culinary. She has been referred to as a chef and a culinary historian, but she prefers to be called Atching, which affectionately means older sister in one of the hundred dialects in the Philippines: Kapampangan.
Atching Lillian tells SBS Food: "Around the early 1800s, the image of the Blessed Virgin of La Naval came to the town of Bacolor, Pampanga. The wealthy people offered valuable gifts to the Virgin. But those without, like myself, they also wanted to offer something, but they had nothing to offer."
These locals created the Panecillos de San Nicolas (San Nicolas biscuits), which the Spanish taught them during the 1600s. They also added a winter melon sweet filling that is used in hopia pastry, which the Chinese taught them in 1603. After fusing both traditions into this biscuit, they did not know what to call it.
They were cooking in the barrio when the Marian procession came through the town with the devotees singing the Spanish song "La despedida a la Virgen" (Farewell to the Virgin). They heard the lyrics "Adios, dulce prenda adorada". They did not understand what it meant but decided 'dulce prenda' would be the name of this sweet cookie.
They now lovingly translate dulce prenda as sweet treasure, which has become a little-known delicacy, except to those living in the town of Bacolor, Pampanga.
However, Atching Lillian wants to change that. She wants the rest of the world to enjoy this hidden culinary gem.
Some of the ingredients also have another, albeit unexpected, use. During the 1600s, it was said that the Spanish used egg whites and lime as part of a mortar to build churches in the Philippines. Hence many desserts were created to address the abundance of egg yolks. Atching Lillian says that the San Nicolas biscuit is made from egg yolks, butter, milk, sugar, arrowroot flour, baking powder, and the rind of dayap (a local citrus).
The intricate pattern on the dulce prenda biscuits is inspired by the beautiful embroidery on the dress of the Virgin of La Naval. Thanks to the excellent craftsmanship of the woodcarvers of Betis, Pampanga, a nearby town, they modified the wooden molds used by the Chinese for mooncakes with Chinese characters with intricate ornate art relevant to the Filipinos.
But Atching Lillian says it's difficult to make this biscuit better known. She thinks this is because the winter-melon filling quickly spoils. Without refrigeration then, the biscuit quickly expires. Atching also thinks this Pampanga cuisine has not been passed on through the generations
However, a recipe that beautifully merges Catholic faith, Spanish history, Chinese influences, Filipino artistry and ingredients into one biscuit, definitely merits the title of a sweet treasure worth keeping.