If only every day were marked with fiestas, or if it were that easy to go home to the province every week, then my sweet tooth wouldn’t look for any other confection than those coming from the kitchen of my very own grandmothers.
They seem ordinary, these desserts called “kakanin”, named after their main ingredient (cooked rice or “kanin”) and “kain”, which plainly means “to eat”. With most types made with a few elementary ingredients – glutinous rice, water, sugar, derivatives of coconut, butter, and sesame seeds (with other ingredients such as egg, cassava, and potato added according to local spin) – then wrapped in the same banana or palm leaves, the varieties of kakanin appear to be cloyingly redundant and uninteresting. But the nuances in measurements and proportions, the type of rice, the way the rice is ground, the way coconut milk is extracted, and how it is finally cooked gives the native delicacy an infinite number of enjoyable possibilities.
The most popular in the kakanin family is “puto” or steamed rice cake, which appears white in its traditional form, to be topped with butter. Additions of ube and pandan change its color and flavor. Salted egg is also used as topping. Varieties of puto include “puto bumbong”, which uses a special type of glutinous rice (“pirurutong”) that gives it a distinctly purple color. It is topped with shredded coconut curd mixed with panocha (from muscovado sugar) .
“Puto lanson”, from Iloilo, is made with grafted cassava, while “puto mejia” uses ginger juice. “Puto malcohido” differentiates itself with the use of plantain leaves in the cooking process. Puto has also undergone its own hybridization with “puto mamon”, made with milk, flour, and eggs, and “puto pao”, which is a cross with the popular sweetmeat siopao.
The kakanin that usually accompanies puto in fiestas and other special occasions is “kutsinta” (cochinta), a sticky-chewy brown rice cake that incorporates cassava and uses lye water. It is likewise topped with shredded coconut curds.
Popularly served during Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass) – a tradition where Catholic devotees attend early morning masses from December 16 to 24 – is “bibingka”, joined by the puto variety of “puto bumbong”. “BIbingka”, a type of pudding, is also common in Goan cuisine. Baked in clay ovens, this fluffy rice cake is also topped with butter and grated coconut curds. Both dishes are keenly associated with the cool early morning weather of December that coincides with the warm anticipation for Christmas.
Suman and Tuping
Another rice delicacy with many known variants is “suman”. It is either steamed like puto or toasted, but is always comprised of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk. It is said that there are as many variants of suman as there are provinces, but here are some of the most famous. “Suman sa ibus” (sticky rice in palm leaves) is probably the most widely known, with its nipa leaf wrapping that turns yellow when cooked. “Suman sa lihiya”, my particular favorite, is waxy rice soaked in lye and boiled with its banana leaf covering. Both are served with sugar and freshly grated coconut curds. While “suman sa lihiya” is usually shaped in flat tubes, “suman sa latik”, which is made of the same material, is shaped in triangles and is served with “latik” or cooked coconut milk residue. Cooked without the banana leaf wrapping, it is called “suman sa inantala”; integrated wth a uniquely balmy, minty flavor, it is called “suman sa binuo”. Finally we get to “tupig”, which is ground glutinous rice pre-mixed with sugar and grated coconut curd before it is wrapped in banana leaves and roasted. This final variant I can eat one after the other just like potato chips!
“Pichi-pichi”, a filling merienda staple, is not made of rice, but the grated cassava that is used for it gives it its gelatine-like quality. It is covered in coconut curd in the same way munchkins are rolled in sugar and other toppings.
Another delicacy that can serve as a snack is the delightful “espasol”. It is really nothing but finely ground glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and rolled in cylinders and covered with powdered sugar. This is what family and friends usually bring when they come from the province of Laguna. Each time, I obligingly accept their gift like a child receives candy.
“Palitaw” is even simpler than “espasol”. Sticky rice is washed, soaked, then ground, then scoops of the resulting batter are dropped into boiling water. They then rise (“litaw” in the local language) to the surface in soft, flat discs. The process itself sounds childish, which is precisely why I loved watching our nursery cook prepare this for our everyday merienda. To me it looked like magic, especially after I dip a few discs in sugar, sesame seeds, and coconut curd before I joyfully consume them.
Also made from sticky rice, but with coconut milk and brown sugar, is “biko”, a rice cake that I would like to think is the Philippine’s (one of two) sweet version of pizza. But unlike the Italian dish, this only needs toasted coconut curd as topping.
Maja blanca, maja mais and maja mais panna cotta
If you want to skip the rice in biko and just retain the coconut milk, you need only add cornstarch and sugar and you get “maja blanca”. This has been modified to include corn and milk to make “maja mais”. A further innovation – fusing “maja mais” and panna cotta-produces “maja mais panna cotta”, which replaces the Italian dessert’s gelatin poweder and cream with the local coconut milk and cornstarch.
The most frivolous of the kakanin delicacies, which now and then reminds me of the color wheel and is the second of the country’s sweet pizzas, is the blancmange “sapin-sapin” (“sapin” meaning layer or patch) [cover photo]. It is made with glutinous rice or rice flour soaked into a paste, combined with coconut milk, water, sugar, and food coloring. Each concentric layer comes in a different hue, usually ranging from purple, yellow, and white. Even if they all taste alike, there is always something fun in taking bits from each layer – just to make sure they really do have the same flavor.
Unlike most food in the Philippines, which has its roots in Chinese, Spanish or even American cuisine, the humble kakanin has predated outside settlers and colonizers. It is one type of dish – in all its subtle variety – that can proudly be called native to the country.