The Secret History Behind Pan de Regla and Other Panaderya Eats

Long before merienda meant stale convenience store hot dogs and burgers sold by disturbingly happy bumblebees (or even more disturbing ginger-haired clowns), peckish Filipinos have flocked for generations to their neighborhood bakeries or panaderia. Rice might be the undisputed favorite carbohydrate in our country, but we’ll always have a soft spot for the cheap, fragrant buns (like the pan de coco) in those glass display cases by the road.

Like a lot of things in our culture, the art of baking bread was introduced by Caucasian invaders (who probably weren’t used to eating all that rice). The Spanish government put up the first bakery in the country around 1631, sourcing wheat flour from China and substituting our native tuba wine for sour dough. When the Americans came in, they brought with them baking powder, yeast, baking sheets, and automatic slicers. But a quick glance at any local bakery will tell you that we’ve turned this bread business into something that’s very much our own.

Because, really, who else but Pinoys can come up with these kooky shapes and names?

Pan de Sal

A mainstay in any panaderia worth its salt, this dark brown bread’s pointy tops are achieved by rolling the dough into a log or baston, which is then cut into uniform slices. These are then rolled in breadcrumbs, and placed cut side down (the cut side is called singkitin the baking vernacular for its resemblance to a chinky eye) on a baking pan before being tossed into the oven. The more traditional bakeries in the provinces bake their pan de sal directly on the oven’s red brick floor, giving the bread a mottled top that’s crunchier than its city counterpart’s.

Why is it called that?

Pan de sal means “bread of salt” in Spanish, for the pinch of salt added to the dough. It was introduced to the Philippines in the 16th century as the Spaniards’ answer to the French baguette.

The original pan de sal was made with wheat flour, so it was hard and crusty (and a far cry from the doughy, yielding specimens at the nearest Pan de Manila). But since our country isn’t big on wheat production, bakers eventually had to use a more inferior type of flour. This resulted in a weaker dough structure, and a softer texture.

Monay

Known as the mother of Filipino breads, the dough for monaytransforms into the pinagong, the putok, the sputnik, and many others depending on the water content, proofing (rising of the dough), and baking time. It’s a soft, yellow bread, traditionally marked with a split down the middle, but some commercially-made monay no longer have this suggestive marking and are paler in color.

Why is it called that?

This was originally called pan de monja (nun’s bread), and was later called monay for short.

Strangely enough, monay later evolved as a colloquial term for female genitals in some rural areas because of its, erm, provocative shape. Just imagine walking into a provincial bakeshop and asking the attendant how much her hot, steaming monay costs. Awkward…

Kalihim (Pan de Regla)

These soft bread pockets are stuffed with a brightly-colored pudding made from stale bread, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla, and a mother lode of red food coloring. Variations on the filling also include those made from ube and pineapple.

Why is it called that?

While some describe the taste of kalihim as tasty but boring, its monikers (and the reasons behind them) are anything but. The word kalihim implies a secret, which in this case alludes to the bakers who processed the previous day’s unsold bread into pastry filling.

Some citizens of Tondo also refer to this afternoon snack as pan de regla (literally, “menstrual bread”) because it looks like the cross section of a used sanitary napkin. For the polite (or the squeamish), however, they can ask their baker for a roll of ligaya (joy). Though as any female who’s gone through puberty will tell you, there’s nothing joyous about being on your period.

Pan de Coco

For those unacquainted with these squishy, round buns, biting into one can be a pleasant (or not) surprise. Their sweet interior of grated coconut and sugar is nestled deep within the pastry, so they are sometimes mistaken for dinner rolls.

Why is it called that?

Pan de coco is Spanish for coconut buns.

The original recipe came from Central America and was brought over to the Philippines by the Spaniards in the 1600’s. The Honduran coasts were overflowing with coconuts, so the natives mixed the fruit’s milk and shredded meat with some flour and water, and baked the unleavened discs of dough in rudimentary stone ovens. But while we enjoy pan de coco as a sweet snack, its Honduran ancestor functioned as a sponge for the drippings of savory stews.

Pan de Putok

One of the many offshoots from the standard monay dough, the pan de putok’s top is clipped with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to produce its signature crown-like ridges. And where a monay is usually soft and airy, this horned bun is compact and dense, with a texture that ranges from semi-soft to rock hard depending on its proofing time.

Why is it called that?

Putok is the Tagalog word for “explosion”, and these crusty babies were named after their cracked tops, which expand from all the steam released during baking.

However, like its monay parent, putok also has an unfortunate alternate meaning in the vernacular. In street slang, it’s synonymous with offensive body odor, particularly from the armpits. It might not sound as icky as pan de regla, but you wouldn’t want to be the hapless chap yelling, “Miss, may putok ba kayo?” at the bakery attendant. (Unless you want one of those rock-hard, horned buns embedded into your forehead as an answer. Ouch.)

Pinagong

This sweet and milky bread is a must-try when passing through the town of Sariaya, Quezon. Another one of the monay’s many offspring, this one differs from its siblings due to the milk powder added to the initial dough for a smoother mouth feel. The end product is said to be so rich and creamy that Sariaya townsfolk dip the bread in black coffee in lieu of using a non-dairy creamer.

Why is it called that?

Pinagong is derived from the Tagalog word for turtle. Each bun has a flat bottom and a curved top, which are decorated with three ridges or indentations that look like scales. Other versions even have protrusions on either end, which resemble the turtle’s head and tail.

A popular myth claims that the pinagong was the result of an accident: a baker who was making a batch of monay fell asleep while he was proofing it in the oven (I guess that’s what happens if your job requires you to be up and about at the crack of dawn). He woke up to find a chewier version of his intended product. Since the guy didn’t want to waste the batch, he carved ridges onto their puffy tops and sold it under a different name: one that paid tribute to its whimsical appearance (and probably to the fact that he accidentally proofed it at a slower pace).

Ensaymada

As with queso de bola, Misa de Gallo, and Noche Buena, the consumption of ensaymada (along with a steaming mug of thick hot chocolate) is a Christmas tradition that we got from the Spaniards, albeit one that we now enjoy throughout the year. Although we’re all familiar with multiple versions, such as those topped with ham or macapuno strips or salted egg slices, its Spanish forbear was a lot less festive (much like a lot of things during their centuries-long occupation).

Why is it called that?

First referenced in the 17th century, the ensaymada originated in Mallorca, Spain (and is still known as a mallorca in some countries today). While our local version is made with butter and fresh milk, the first ensaymada had no such ingredients. Instead, it contained wheat flour, water, and pork lard, hence its name (the term “ensaymada” comes from saïm, the Catalan word for “pork lard”). Its texture was also hardier than the cakelike namesake we enjoy today.

Sputnik

As the youngest of the monay children, these baby buns are not as sweet as their elder sibling, the pan de putok, but are far rarer (and much cheaper, at only PHP 2.00 apiece).

Why is it called that?

This baby monay was a tribute to the Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite launched from the Earth in the 1950’s. Like its starchy counterpart, the spherical satellite was diminutive, being all of twenty-three inches in diameter.

When the 1980’s came along, the small, light brown spheres of dough went by another name: Pac-Man. I guess if you look at them sideways, those nasty gashes on the side sort of look like mouths eager to chomp ghostly opponents into digestive oblivion.

Spanish Bread

This crescent-shaped pan de sal derivative is a staple of many a Filipino kid’s summer afternoons at the local panaderia, usually accompanied by sips of cold Coca-Cola poured into a flimsy plastic bag.

Why is it called that?

Ironically, despite the vast number of our local breads descending from the ones brought over by our Hispanic conquerors, Spanish bread is the one example that’s completely our own.

It has been theorized that it’s called thus because of its similarity to the ensaymada. Both breads are made with eggs, butter, and sugar, and are coiled prior to baking. Only Spanish bread is rolled into a flat sheet, and then twirled into a stout stick rather than into a bun.

Kababayan

If the Philippines were to have a truly local cupcake, this would be it. Pint-sized and moist, these gong-shaped cakes made with condensed milk have a creamy sweetness that could render any sort of frosting superfluous.

Why is it called that?

The word kababayan literally translates to “fellow countryman.” These baked goods resemble the straw hats worn by Filipino farmers, who lifted them up in salute whenever they bumped into each other. (Though if you ask me, those little “hats” also look like the sort that belong on this list.)

They say that a country’s plate (or bread box, in this case) can reveal a lot about its culture and history. If you take a closer look at ours, I guess you’ll find that we’re an ingenious people capable of wringing a multitude of creations from just one kind of dough and salvaging mistakes or leftovers into profitable breakthroughs, all while naming each creation with a quirky flair that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

This article was originally published in 2013.

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