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Country Cooking
Dreaming of rice cakes

By Micky Fenix
Inquirer
First Posted 00:48:00 05/31/2007

Filed Under: Lifestyle & Leisure, Food

Kakanin or native cake is such a huge subject that choosing what to write about can make your head spin. But I do need to decide soon because the deadline for a book draws near.

?Rice Cake Dreams? was the title chosen even though kakanin is not made only of rice. The book will contain entries in last year?s Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award and some from members of the Manila Ladies Branch of the International Wine and Food Society.

The branch has published several collections of essays like ?Comforting Cuisine? and ?Slow Food: Philippine Culinary Traditions.?

Puto alone boggles the mind with its variety. It comes in all shapes?small round, big round, huge round, square, oval, tube, etc. Some puto are called by the place where they are made, among them Marilao, Biñan and Manapla. The latter has taken on the name of the Metro Manila street where it can be bought so people who order there know it as Puto Reposo.

My interviews with puto cooks have taught me that temperature has a lot to do with the successful outcome of the pieces. The puto-maker in Pangasinan said if the humidity was high, the puto would not rise.

For puto Manapla, leaves placed underneath have to be from saba banana otherwise the flavor will not be the same.

And, as in show biz, there are also rumors you pick up, like the one about two partners in Bulacan who split. Both have opened puto shops that stand side by side.

Puto maya in Bohol is glutinous white rice mixed with violet rice called tapol. When cooked, it tastes palpably of ginger.

The Ilonggo puto lanson is made of grated cassava, always foamy when cooked.

My brother-in-law likes to buy what he calls Batangas puto, round, all-white and cake-like. They are cut with a string into diamond-shaped pieces.

But nothing beats the way puto is presented at the Citang Eatery and Special Puto in Malolos. Salted eggs are cut into thin crescents then arranged in a radial pattern on top of the puto.

Elongated shape

Suman is another general name for a kind of kakanin, more elongated in shape and wrapped in an assortment of leaves.

All over the country, suman sa ibos is known by that name. It is made of steamed glutinous rice, wrapped in strips of nipa leaves that turn yellowish in color when cooked.

How you eat it depends on where you are and how you were taught. In my family, we always fry the suman sa ibos on both sides until the surface is toasted, wipe it with a lot of butter then sprinkle sugar on it. But we also like it with matamis na bao, coconut milk cooked with panocha until thick and almost solid.

The very first kakanin I cooked was suman sa lihiya. I was in Grade 4 at the St. Joseph?s School in Olongapo City, an experience I?ve always been grateful for because I would not have learned kakanin cooking in a Manila school at the time.

I still remember how the suman turned green and I surmised it must have been because of the lihiya or lye water reacting with the banana leaves.

I thought that suman was the best merienda I ever had even compared to the suman my lola would bring home from Bataan.

In Leyte, my sister-in-law tried to teach me how to do suman latik, which is how suman sa lihiya is called there. The wrapper is the flame-shaped hagikhik leaf. When the wrapping is done, the suman becomes triangular though the bottom is flat.

As in all food-wrapping exercises, I failed miserably so that rice grains slipped out while the suman was being steamed.

How kakanin is cooked looks fairly easy especially in businesses that do the process daily. When we visited the putong Pulo kitchen, we peeped into huge steamers that held so many pieces in small molds. And we watched how the first two of 13 sapin-sapin layers were done in Ka Nita Baluran?s kitchen in Malolos.

Exacting

But when I had to document the puto and sapin-sapin recipes for Kulinarya, the working title of a Filipino recipe manual, I found the process even more exacting than baking a cake.

The recipes are from the family of chef Jessie Sincioco who hails from Angat in Bulacan. We worked at her Le Souffle kitchen so, instead of the traditional kitchen, we were in a modern kitchen. In place of a stone grinder (gilingan), a blender was used to grind the soaked rice.

We found out in an earlier recipe test that a food processor would not do because the ground rice did not come out as fine.

Instead of the small round plastic containers for the puto, we experimented with a muffin pan. It worked but there had to be a cut plastic wrapper fitted into each container and brushed with oil.

It was Noreen, Jessie?s niece, who worked with us. She said it was best to soak the rice overnight or at least five hours before grinding. There is also a time requirement for blending. Before or beyond that time will not give the desired result.

Even passing the ground rice through cheesecloth requires a certain technique, rocking the mixture side to side instead of squeezing.

We followed the number of minutes needed for steaming. The length of time depends on how big the steamer is and how high the stove flame is. The most important information is, when cooking puto, never open the steamer before the kakanin is cooked. That rule means a crack at the top, the must-look of a well-cooked puto.

My deadline draws near for ?Rice Cake Dreams? and I know that, beyond suman and puto, there are even more kakanin-bibingka, kalamay, biko, espasol and its Ilonggo cousin, baye-baye, moche, moron. The list goes on and on. It is really about time some of these are documented in a book.

E-mail the author at pinoyfood04@yahoo.com


Previous columns:
Filipino ingenuity ? 5/24/07
Weeds, ferns and plant salad ? 5/17/07
Interacting with a Singaporean cook ? 5/09/07
A piece of heaven ? 5/03/07
A summer harvest experience ? 4/26/07



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