Kakanin: The History of 7 of Our Favorite Sticky Rice Snacks

February 3, 2019

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.

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.

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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).

5. 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 in Greenbelt 5 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

There are dozens of other types of kakanin all over the country. What are the unique variants from your hometowns? Do you know the stories behind their names? Leave a comment below.

References

Galang, D. (2004). Kanin na naman: Kakanin Through Time and Pinoy’s Modern Sweet Indigent. Retrieved 3 November 2013 from http://www.mb.com.ph/node/181033.

Montesines, P. (2000, May). Malagkit Magic. FOOD Magazine, 18.

Banner/Header Image via Food Republic

Serna Estrella SEE AUTHOR Serna Estrella

Serna is a slim piggy who heartily believes that salads are not real food and that desserts (fruit salad not included) should have their own food group. When she's not terrorizing people with her Grammar Nazi tendencies, she likes to hunt for the perfect afternoon tea spot that lets her pretend she's still in the age of Austen (albeit with electricity and better dental care).

33 comments in this post SHOW

33 responses to “Kakanin: The History of 7 of Our Favorite Sticky Rice Snacks”

  1. Maureen Antoinette says:

    Nakakagalit ‘tong article na to–nakakatakam. I’m a sucker for anything kakanin. The best puto is the one from Marikina, orange in color and bite-size. 🙂

  2. henrik says:

    Enjoyed the article…but it’s somehow misleading. Or I guess I expected a different thing when it said it is about the history of the ‘kakanins’ and not just how their names came about. Still, I’m now hungry. Hey, what about ‘Bibingka’, isn’t that considered a kakanin? (Sorry I am not Filipino, but have been here long enough)

    • Sergia Susana says:

      Hello, Henrik. 🙂 Thank you for that. The kakanin history is briefly explained in the introduction, with the name origins as supplementary information. 🙂

      And yes, bibingka is a kakanin, but it will be included in next month’s article about the origins of noche buena food, so it was omitted here.

      Ooh, may I ask what your nationality is? Do you have a favorite among our local kakanin, sir? 🙂

      • henrik says:

        Hello, I hope I didn’t come across as rude! I think I was expecting further historical context, but nevermind. 🙂 I am Swedish. Yes, I would say I like ‘Bibingka’ the most. The other Filipino ‘kakanin’ and treats taste good, but I am not particularly fond of the texture – how ‘sticky’ and gloopy they are. Being Swedish, I naturally have a sweet tooth — amazingly it’s no match here since everything is 10x sweeter here in the Philippines. 🙂

        • Sergia Susana says:

          Oh, not at all! 🙂 I welcome all sorts of feedback on my articles. I shall bear yours in mind when I make the next one thus.Tack sa mycket for reading our articles and for joining the discussions. 🙂

          There’s nothing quite like a good bibingka, especially when the weather gets a bit nippy, and here in our country, it has that nostalgic pull as it’s usually widely sold and consumed during the Yuletide holidays. 🙂

          Does Sweden have any desserts that are similar to our local kakanin? 🙂

          • henrik says:

            Tack detsamma! 🙂
            Off the top of my head, I would say, Napoleones is similar to Napoleonbakelse, but then that is not exactly Filipino, is it, since it’s a Mille-feuille that seems to be adopted by the entire world. Traditional Swedish desserts are very different since we use a lot of fresh fruits (often seasonal) and spices like saffron, cardamom, nutmeg. We have a lot of desserts that are only consumed during the holidays, most are cakes, cookies, and bread like Lussekatter which are saffron buns that come out of hiding come Lucia day. Most are best consumed with strong black coffee, of course. Like Filipinos, we love food and gatherings, we aren’t known for smörgåsbord for nothing. 🙂
            I seemed to have hijacked your comments thread, I apologize. Sorry for my bad English too.
            -h

          • Maureen Antoinette says:

            Your last comment took me to a different world of food/desserts! 🙂

          • henrik says:

            Ah, which? Swedish food and desserts? Ja, I invite you all to try some, but I do not think Swedish food is populare here.

          • Sergia Susana says:

            Oh, not at all. Your reply was very informative, so it’s much appreciated. 🙂 And your English is actually quite good.

            Up until now, the only Swedish dishes I’ve been familiar with are Swedish meatballs (my aunt makes a wicked version with lingonberry sauce and gravy), herring and potatoes, and the delicious carbs overload called Jansson’s Temptation, if I remember correctly. 🙂 I can now only imagine what a Swedish holiday dessert buffet would look like. Bring on the smörgåsbord indeed.

          • henrik says:

            There is no other way to eat meatballs but with lingonsylt, potatoes and gravy! Yes, correct, those are staple food i Sweden. Janssons Frestelse yes, can be heavy, It’s a wonder we all manage to keep fit with all the smörgåsbord we have. Scandinavian food is good but probably not as sophisticated as Continental Europe. It’s simple and all about freshness, I would say.
            Thank you for the chat here. I enjoyed it very much.
            -h

          • henrik says:

            I remember another Filipino dessert I like, Maja Blanca! I used to pronounce the Swedish way (Ma-ya), until I was told I’ve been saying it wrong all along.

  3. Marge says:

    Ginataang bilo-bilo is also called Pinindot in some parts of the country.

  4. Noy Calaguas says:

    In pampanga we call ginataang bilo bilo as Sampelut! 🙂

  5. Addi dela Cruz says:

    Love this post, Serna! My favorites have got to be the Duman from Tarlac and Sinukmani from Quezon. 🙂

  6. Gillian Camille Abello says:

    Sinukmani, I think, is another name for biko. The two names are interchangeable in my hometown.

  7. Geh says:

    There is a “bibingka” which resembles the “biko”, the cake itself is white but the topping is a thick latik. The biko I grew up with is the one in the center of the circular sapin sapin, it’s brown and topped with a dry latik. I’m confused. :))

  8. CDC says:

    Since I hail from Bulacan, we have a lot of kakanins that isnt that popular like sumang marjuecos and onde onde which is basically a galapong with a filling inside.

  9. One of my favorite kakanins is Tupig. It’s like suman only it’s grilled over hot charcoal rather than steamed. It’s made of giniling na malagkit and coconut. Yum!

    • Nica Angeles says:

      I love love tupig! The ones from Camiling, Tarlac, are the best for me. 🙂 There’s a running joke in our household that vendors keep their tupig warm by placing these atop a piece of yero. Considering that it gets really hot in Central Luzon, I think this method will actually work! 🙂

  10. […] delicacy. However, despite the Chinese origins of its name, bibingka remains a steadfastly Filipino kakanin with pre-Hispanic roots. It’s historically been one of the traditional rice cake offerings to […]

  11. […] the benefit of our non-Filipino readers, suman is the quintessential Filipino kakanin or rice cake. Its smooth, slightly grainy texture and mild flavor is a perfect foil for the juicy, […]

  12. Lily Gonzaga Della says:

    My mom started this business of kakanin in the very early 1950s in Sangandaan market after she and my dad moved the family from Nueve Ecija. Two of my older siblings were starting college. We are nine in the family and we all grew up taking turns in managing this kakanin business. We made everything; putong puti, cuchinta, palitaw, maja blanca, sapin sapin, kalamay, bibingkang galapong, bibingkang malagkit, biko, to name a few. I distinctly remember that we made bibingkang malagkit using biko as the base. The difference is that biko is made with sweet glutinous rice steamed with coconut milk and once cooked (as you would with the ordinary table rice), is put in a big “kawa or talyasi (cauldron) with brown sugar and is mixed repeatedly until it gets makunat (tensile). For topping we use latik (coconut milk boiled until oil is drawn out and sweet smelling crusty pieces is formed) and is served with shredded fresh coconut. Bibingka’s topping is different in such that coconut milk is boiled with brown sugar until it becomes gooey . It is then spread on top of the biko and put under the broiler until it turns crusty and golden brown.

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