A kaleidoscope of Filipino kakanin in rainbow colors and various shapes, are sold all over our country: in public markets, city sidewalks, bus terminals, mall food court stalls, and even by ambulant vendors plying the streets with wide bilaos (flat woven baskets) balanced precariously on their heads. Primarily eaten as a snack or dessert, kakanin or Filipino sweet rice cakes make use of our country’s principal agricultural crop: rice.

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A kakanin vendor from the Lipa Public Market, deftly cuts puto with a long piece of string

These tiny white grains of rice—usually glutinous (malagkit or sweet) or sometimes non-glutinous rice (table rice or bigas)—have a neutral taste is the perfect blank canvass to make all kinds of heavy and filling kakanin such as suman, bibingka, biko, kutsinta, sapin-sapin, and maja blanca. These rice-based snacks can either be shaped into cylinders, rolled into balls, or poured into large bilaos to be cut into triangles, squares, or bars. Depending on the recipe or availability of ingredients, cooks require newly harvested rice (bagong ani) or old rice (laon), which are kept whole or ground into fine rice flour.

To sweeten the formula, refined white sugar or soft brown sugar is mixed in, caramelized or sprinkled on top. Other sweeteners may be in the form of unrefined cane sugar called panutsa, partially unrefined muscovado sugar or thick molasses called pulot. Coconut is also employed in a number of ways. Grated mature coconut or niyog is extracted to produce coconut milk (gata) that provides the necessary richness or linamnam in kakanin.

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Isn’t it fascinating how a basic recipe using rice, sugar, and coconut can produce such a wide variety of kakanin?

This milky liquid can also be boiled down into dried brown bits called latik as topping for maja blanca and sapin-sapin; or when mixed with sugar and simmered into a thick syrup, it becomes a blanket topping for bibingkang malagkit, also called latik. Certain rice cakes like kutsinta require a sprinkle of freshly grated mature coconut (niyog) to complement every bite.

This same grated coconut may be toasted to make the budbud that is sprinkled on top of sapin-sapin, while young coconut meat (buko) is shredded and added to some kakanin like Pangasinan’s tupig. The basic recipe is given variety with its toppings of sesame seeds, pinipig, anise seeds, and even cheese and chocolate (like the Visayan suman moron). For fragrance, flavor and sometimes color, backyard plants like pandan leaves and banana leaves are tucked into the mix.

It’s interesting to note that the different types of suman are traditionally shaped and wrapped a certain way. Suman sa lihiya from Batangas are wrapped in mature dark green leaves, while the white sweet suman are rolled in younger, more pliable, light green banana leaves. Strips of buri palm leaves from the coconut palm tree are twirled to make the popular suman sa ibus, a specialty of Antipolo. How convenient for folks back in the day to have banana leaves ready for the taking, as an environment-friendly container, plate, or liner for their bilaos!

For variety in taste, kakanin makers turn to fruits and tubers like corn, langka, kamote, cassava, and ube. For color, artificial food coloring in powder or liquid form in orange, purple, yellow, and green are mixed in to make kakanin more attractive. To make kutsinta and suman sa lihiya, a dose of lye or lihiya is a key ingredient. Curiously, a yellow slick of margarine is sometimes slathered on top of puto or bibingka as a final flourish, leaving a lingering umami flavor.

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This centuries-old tradition of preparing kakanin employs different cooking methods: steamed (puto, kutsinta, sapin-sapin, puto bumbong), boiled (suman, palitaw), fried (carioca) baked (biko, kalamay, sinukmani), and even broiled on top and below, with the addition of cheese and salted eggs (bibingkang galapong). Kakanin is a union of two Tagalog words: kain (to eat) and kanin (rice). Looking closely at our Filipino eating habits, another question begs to be answered: If we Pinoys take rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, why do we still eat rice for dessert?