In Asia where rice is in abundance, it should come as no surprise that it has shaped the palatal preference of the billions of people in the region.
If Korea has tteok, Japan has mochi, and China has nian gao, then the Philippines boasts of kakanin. An integral part of the Philippine cuisine, kakainin is, in actuality, an umbrella term for several native sweets made from glutinous rice that is often cooked slowly with coconut milk. The name is derived from two Tagalog words “kain” (to eat) and “kanin” (rice). Significant in the eating tradition of different Philippine households, kakanin is a favored merienda (snack) and is also eaten during breakfast.
Although the ingredients—rice, milk, flour, and sugar—are easily acquired, cooking kakanin, in its truest method, demands patience and endurance. It is traditionally cooked in a clay pot in which the coal is continuously fanned and blown on using a narrow wood pipe. The mixture should be repeatedly stirred to be fully blended. While other types of kakanin can be cooked by frying, boiling, and steaming, its meticulous indigenous process is what makes eating it humbling and rewarding.
Listed below are some of the most well-known but undeniably well-loved kakanin in the Philippines.
Puto is perhaps the most easily identifiable kakanin. It is a steamed rice cake that is traditionally white in color (although the last few decades saw people experimenting on variations in its tinge). It is most often served as a snack but, like the French baguette, can be an accompaniment to savory dishes such as dinuguan (a tasty stew of meat or sometimes pork entrails that is simmered in pig blood, vinegar, green chili and garlic) and pansit bihon guisado (flavorful rice noodle dish with meat and vegetables).
Some people also infuse various flavors into the puto. These variations include ube and pandan. Toppings which range from cheese to salted duck egg can be added.
Suman is a rice cake made from glutinous rice that is cooked in coconut milk and is often tightly wrapped in buri palm leaves to be steamed. While it can be eaten as it is, people can probably enjoy it more by dipping it on or sprinkling it with sugar. Some try suman with latik (caramelized coconut syrup).
Suman wrapping is an art in its own right. Although palm is the usual choice, others utilize an array of indigenous materials like anahaw, bamboo, and banana leaves. The wrappings can be in simple rectangular folds, in vertical tubular coils, in pyramidal form, or even in an intricate octahedral shape.
Bibingka is a cake made from rice flour and coconut milk. Secondary ingredients are made from eggs, sugar and clarified butter. The cake mixture is baked in clay pots with heated coals above and under and is lined with banana leaves. Due to this cooking method, bibingka is spongy, faintly burnt on both surfaces and is imbued with charred banana leaves aroma. It can then be topped with butter, sugar, margarine or desiccated coconut.
Bibingka is traditionally eaten during the Christmas season. People prefer to eat it after attending the nine-day simbang gabi (night mass) and it is often sold outside the churches.
Palitaw is a small, flat, and sweetened rice cake. Its name is from the Tagalog word “litaw” which translates to rise or float. It is referred to as such because of its distinct cooking process. The malagkit (sticky rice) is washed, soaked and ground. The batter, after taking out the excess water, is flattened to a round form and is then cooked by dropping it into steaming water. The palitaw is done when it floats to the surface; hence, the name.
It is served with grated coconut, sugar, and sesame seeds.
This list only presents a fraction of the numerous native sweets in the Philippines. Other examples of kakanin include biko, kalamay, espasol, kutsinta, bilo-bilo, and sapin-sapin.
Although the evolving market has introduced different flavors to the palate of people in the country, kakanin has remained extremely important as can be seen by the many vendors on the streets and in different public space.
The Filipino tongue will never forget the taste of kakanin.
By Lea Salen Peralta, ASEAN Correspondent from Philippines