Kakanin: The History Behind 7 Filipino Sticky Rice Snacks

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If those catchy commercials on television are to be believed, merienda is the sole territory of fast food burger heavyweights. However, any homegrown Filipino will tell you that creepy, ginger-haired clowns or bug-eyed jolly bees have nothing on their favorite kakanin sold by their neighborhood suki. After a long day at the office, a slice of biko or a few pieces of palitaw are what most of us normally crave for. We can’t help it; it’s practically in our blood.

What is kakanin?

The name kakanin is derived from two Tagalog words: “kain” (to eat) and “kanin” (rice). It’s an umbrella term for sweets made of glutinous rice and coconut milk, two ingredients that tropical countries like ours have in abundance. These ingredients are usually employed in one of two forms. Some recipes use galapong, made by soaking rice flour overnight, then grinding and straining it using a cheesecloth. Other types of kakanin use simple malagkit or sticky rice grains that are either ground up or left whole.

Sweetened with sugar, wrapped in banana leaves and traditionally steamed in a special clay stove called a bibingkahan, sticky cakes were initially created to serve as offerings to pre-colonial gods and/or as gifts to honored guests and visitors. While the aforementioned clay stove is now a rare sight, many of the old recipes and cooking methods for making kakanin are still actively used in modern times.

Almost all kinds of kakanin has its own unique and quirky name. As you’ll see in the following examples, each carries with it a history that’s as rich and deeply-rooted in our culture as the delicacy it identifies.

Biko

A mainstay at town fiestas, weddings, and funerals, biko is what usually comes to mind when you hear the word “kakanin.” These rice cakes are made with malagkit rice and coconut milk, with a dark brown topping. Gooey, sticky, and with a distinct, nutty sweetness, biko is one delicacy that’s difficult to put down after you’ve had a bite.

What’s with the name?

Biko takes its name from the coffee-colored, sweet coconut curd that gives it its distinctive flavor. The sticky cakes are also sometimes referred to as kalamay, although, strictly speaking, the term only pertains to the coconut milk, brown sugar, and glutinous rice powder mixture that is sometimes spread over the biko.

Puto

Arguably the most popular kakanin, this steamed rice cake is traditionally white in color, although it can also be tinged green or purple to indicate that its been flavored with pandan or ube, respectively. Like the French baguette, it is sometimes eaten alongside savory viands, most notably the dinuguan. Choice toppings for puto range from a single strip of cheese to a slice of salted egg.

What’s with the name?

The word puto is derived from the Malay word puttu, which literally means “portioned.” The regional variants of the steamed cake take their names from either their appearance or their most notable feature. Puto bumbong, for example, is named after the chimney-like contraption used to cook it, puto seco translates to “dry puto” in Spanish (a nod to this variant’s biscuit-like texture), and bite-sized cakes stuffed with a sweet meat filling are called puto pao as a tribute to the Chinese meat bun that inspired their creation.

Sapin-sapin

Made with galapong, coconut milk, sugar, condensed milk, and an occasional ube/langka/cheese flavoring, this festive and colorful dish is sometimes referred to as a sweetened and coconut-infused blancmange by foreigners who encounter it for the first time. It has a dense, pudding-like texture, and is often seen at social gatherings like fiestas, school events, Christmas parties, birthdays and barangay election victory banquets.

What’s with the name?

Sapin-sapin is an old Tagalog word for “layers,” a word which evokes this sticky dessert’s appearance and taste. The name also hints at its method of preparation. When making sapin-sapin, one must make sure that each layer of the glutinous rice batter is allowed to steam and set before the next layer is poured in to keep the vibrant colors and flavors separate and intact.

Ginataang Bilo-Bilo

Afternoons spent at lola’s house in the province aren’t complete without a bowl of this staple comfort food. Ginataang bilo-bilo is essentially a mixture of diced root vegetables (such as kamote or ube), bananas, and chewy rice balls. They’re all then cooked together in a soupy gruel thickened with coconut milk (and the starch from the sliced tubers). Sliced langka or jackfruit is sometimes added to give the dish a tart kick.

What’s with the name?

Translated literally, ginataang bilo-bilo means “rice balls cooked in sweetened coconut milk.” Ginataan is derived from gata, the Tagalog word for “coconut milk.” Bilo-bilo comes from the sound the sticky rice balls make as they boil away on a stove. The syllables are just repeated because this supposedly increases the prosperity the bilo-bilo will bring.

Our Chinese forebears were the ones who introduced the idea that round, starchy desserts symbolize wealth sticking to anyone who consumes them. In addition, the tradition of doubling up the syllables in the dish’s name is said to strengthen its power.

Suman

Suman is the country’s quintessential rice cake. It is a name shared by many different variants that are all made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, wrapped tightly in palm leaves, and then steamed. It’s quite delicious on its own, but those who like to up the ante enjoy it with a sprinkling of sugar. Others even fry it for an even richer version. (If that’s not indulgent enough for you, Fely J’s makes a mean dessert with suman, ripe mangoes, and macapuno ice cream).

Like the puto, there are numerous varieties of suman in the country. The most popular is called suman sa lihiya, which is comprised of soaked glutinous rice and coconut milk (treated with lye) wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for two hours.

What’s with the name?

It’s surmised that while the suman has been around for centuries, its original name might have been lost to history.

Its name is allegedly rooted in an old Spanish phrase for “rice cakes wrapped in leaves, with somewhat longish pieces,” as described by Antonio Pigafetta, the chronicler for the first Spanish expedition to arrive on Philippine shores.

Suman’s regional variants, meanwhile, derive their names from the material or method used to wrap them. Suman sa ibus are rice cakes poured into coil-shaped receptacles made out of young palm leaves, which are called “ibus” in Tagalog. The pinagi, on the other hand, was named after the pagi (“stingray” in Tagalog) as a nod to the complex, geometric shape that resembles its namesake.

Kutsinta

While American kids grew up on peanut butter and jelly, their Filipino counterparts had puto and kutsinta. Much like the puto, kutsinta is also made with ground rice and sugar, with the addition of lye (sodium hydroxide) to give it its distinct muddy yellow color and jelly-like texture. Usually sold in packs alongside mounds of puto, the kutsinta is normally served topped with grated coconut.

What’s with the name?

The kutsinta was thought to have sprung up at the same time as its pasty counterpart, but the origins of its name remain a mystery. It has been theorized, however, that its name might have a connection to an obsolete piece of kitchen equipment responsible for its flattened, saucer-like shape. Unfortunately, the name of the said instrument has also been lost to history.

Palitaw

Sticky rice is washed, soaked, and then ground to a fine powder and then mixed with coconut milk and sugar to make the batter for this fluffy, dense kakanin. Scoops of the batter are then dropped into boiling water and left to cook until they float back to the surface as soft, flat disks. Rolled in sesame seeds, grated coconut, and sugar, they are a favorite among the young (and the young-at-heart).

What’s with the name?

Litaw” means “to rise” in the vernacular, and in this case, it refers to how you’ll know the palitaw is cooked and ready to be taken out of the pot. Colloquially, the palitaw is also called “dila-dila” for its broad, tongue-like appearance (though I can’t imagine why anyone would find that mental image appetizing).

With globalization and the evolving local market driving a lot of international establishments to open establishments here, Filipino diners are increasingly being exposed to and developing a taste for foreign cuisines . But although we continue to cultivate a universal palate, the taste of kakanin (the taste of home, really) remains something we can never do without.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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