Yema: The Origins of a Classic Filipino CandyMarch 31, 2019
Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year (apart from Halloween, which isn’t celebrated here in quite the same way as in other countries) that the candy industry really makes a killing. When you’re happily afloat with the flush of first love (or bitterly observing Singles Awareness Day), there’s something really satisfying about tucking into a box of Ferrero/Chocnut/Toblerone from your significant other/s (or binging on a 1 pound bag of M&M’s in between sobs).
While it’s hard to imagine the local candy scene without international stalwarts like Cadbury, Hershey’s, and Kitkat ruling the roost (with Chocnut and Goya being the hometown favorites), there was once a time when Filipino mothers spun out sugary treats right at home for their children to enjoy. Yema is one such confection, and its origins are as straightforward and practical as the reason behind its name.
What Exactly is Yema?
Yema is Spanish for “egg yolk,” and is most likely a reference either to its golden-yellow appearance or to its composition (traditionally a batter of egg yolks, lime peel, and sugar). Intensely rich and similar in texture to the French crème brûlée, it is sometimes made more decadent by the addition of a thin, crisp coating of caramelized sugar. Wrapped in squares of colorful cellophane, yema can be purchased everywhere, from sari-sari stores, roadside stalls, to street vendors outside churches, as well as a few select groceries and bakeries.
As with a lot of other things in our multicultural heritage, whether yema is entirely Filipino or Spanish in origin remains to be conclusively proven. What is known, however, is that before the candy’s first recorded appearance in our country, a Spanish convent was already famed for producing a very similar delicacy.
Back in the Middle Ages, the citizens of Avila, Spain enjoyed a pastry called Yemas de Santa Teresa (literally, “egg yolks of St. Teresa”), named after the town’s patron saint. The nuns at the Santa Teresa de Avila convent used to take in people’s laundry and, before the advent of detergent and fabric spray, used egg whites to starch clothing. They also used them to clarify casks of red wine. The monks who also lived at the convent allegedly took the surplus yolks, beat them in copper bowls, and mixed in a syrup made up of lemon juice, cinnamon, sugar, and water to make a sort of pastry dough. Once the mixture cooled, they were molded into little balls and served in white, fluted tartlet cups.
When the Spaniards conquered the Philippines about a century later, one of their first acts was to establish a parish in each new settlement. Large-scale church building ensued, and this eventually led to the birth (or rebirth, depending on who you ask) of yema.
Early builders used easily available indigenous materials in their construction projects. A mix of calcium compounds or quicklime, egg whites, and crushed eggshells were widely used on stone walls to make them more durable and impervious to the elements.
Again, as with the old Santa Teresa de Avila convent, an excessive supply of egg yolks followed. Not wanting the leftover foodstuff to go to waste, Filipinos scrambled to find ways to utilize them. Whether they came up with the recipe on their own or with a bit of help from a few Hispanic friars (who were probably acquainted with the invention of their enterprising counterparts at the Avila convent), yema candy made from egg yolks and sugar became widely available for the population to enjoy shortly thereafter.
Yema Then and Now
Given the yema’s rather literal moniker, egg yolks remained the candy’s primary ingredient for quite a while after it was first produced in the country. Milk was added to the mixture most likely after Filipinos learned to boil down milk to bring out a sweeter, creamier taste (i.e. dulce de leche). Another theory also states that the dairy product might have entered the picture after the Americans came in and introduced the canning process (and by extension, canned condensed milk).
Nowadays, there are plenty of variations on the traditional yema recipe. In Bulacan, arguably the hub for many Filipino candies, they’ve incorporated add-ons like nuts and even ground-up cookies into the candy mixture. The Bulakenyos are also sometimes credited with being the first to reshape the yema into the caramel-colored pyramids that are commonly sold today.
Some of the last century’s culinary innovations have also made their mark on the iconic candy. Powdered milk now figures into some yema recipes, and condensed milk sometimes takes the place of the conventional egg yolks all together (a godsend for the novice cook whose inexpert handling might lead to a pot of sticky, sweet scrambled egg yolks instead of custard candy). A few local candy artisans have also taken advantage of the increasingly globalized Filipino palate, and have taken to adding exotic ingredients such as sea salt and chili peppers for an added kick.
Of course, for the purist, nothing comes close to the smooth, velvety texture and wholesome, creamy sweetness of yema made with egg yolks in the old-fashioned way. That’s the kind of love affair that will never go out of style.