Before our meriendas were invaded by the jolly bee and the red-haired smiling clown who offer burgers, fries, and spaghetti, all of us were smitten with the idea that a single serving of delicious, sticky kakanin will help soothe our tired souls. A slice of biko with a cup of salabat can delight any lola or lolo who had a long day playing with their grandchildren or maybe a few pieces of puto and palitaw for the lovely mothers and hardworking fathers. Let’s not forget junior and his ability to make you smile almost immediately right after you see him because he’s pretty sure he likes a second serving of that colorful sapin-sapin. Kakanin live up to its name, sticking our family ties together.
It’s no secret that these native delicacies are imprinted on our hearts and maybe even run in our blood, too. It’s the ultimate comfort food for most Filipinos because it reminds them of their heydays and the promise that if you eat something sticky and sweet, you and your loved ones will stay intact forever. But what separates the magic of kakanin from the rest of our scrumptious meriendas?
The love of Filipinos for kakanin can be traced back during pre-colonial times when ancestors offered these delicacies to the gods and visitors. Derived from two Tagalog words, kain which is to eat and kanin which is rice, kakanin is the perfect marriage between glutinous rice and coconut milk, two ingredients in which you will find in most kakanin dishes. Other ingredients such as galapong is also used, in which the rice flour is soaked overnight, grounded and strained the next day in cheesecloth to get that fine texture. Back in the time of our grandmothers and grandfathers, kakanin was made in bibingkahan, a special clay stove used solely for cooking kakanin. This equipment used coals and whoever was cooking must have the extreme patience of stirring the mixture continuously so as not to burn it and to get that nice consistency and stickiness. Though the said equipment is a rare sight these days, the cooking method remains the same.
Kakanin is mostly made and found during special gatherings: celebration of birthdays and weddings, lively festivities, or just the indulgence of digging through that slice of suman and kutsinta. Though a lot of Filipinos would argue that eating kakanin during meriendas is a vanishing tradition because of the fast-paced life we’re living, the sincerity that you found in eating kakanin is still there and enough to revive the dying tradition of spending afternoons in the streets, hands occupied with a serving of sticky goodness wrapped in banana leaves, and the promise that this practice will continue to live and grow in the coming years.
There are lot of types of kakanin, which hold its own uniqueness, catchy name, and carries its rich history. Here are some of Philippines’ most beloved afternoon delights.
It’s probably the first thing that comes in mind when the word kakanin is heard. It’s a staple in every gathering, from fiestas to birthdays and even funerals. Gooey, sticky, and deliciously sweet, biko is made with glutinous rice, brown sugar and coconut milk, topped with glorious sprinkles of latik or dry coconut curds which most people find to be the best part of eating biko. Biko is easily found in markets and neighborhood carinderias, sold among other kakanin.
Another version of biko is the one topped with a sweet and gluey dark spread called kalamay, which is another type of kakanin that has similar ingredients with biko. In other provinces, like in Bohol, biko is served in halved coconut shells so people can dig in and scoop out the kakanin along with coconut meat. In Mindoro, biko is laced with peanut butter which might sound strange but it works and makes the biko even richer.
There’s no denying that puto is one of the most loved kakanin in the country. With a lot of variations, puto can come in many forms with salted egg on top, sliced cheddar cheese, or maybe some sweet asado filling inside. They can be colored in different shades of rainbow or be served in log sizes and topped with dried coconut, butter, and brown sugar. Puto is a versatile dish that you can eat on its own or most preferably, paired with savory servings of dinuguan or pancit. Like biko, puto is also a staple in gatherings. It may look like it’s made easily like one of those cupcakes you’ve baked all your life but don’t let this small fellow fool you. To make a perfect batch of freshly steamed puto, a lot of factors must be considered, even the temperature of the room. Too hot and the steamed puto will turn sour, too cold and the mixture will not rise. In other provinces, like in Laguna, they have what they call Puto Biñan which consists of grated cheddar cheese, salted egg, and is served in bilao or rice winnower. We also have our Christmas staple which is the puto bumbong, a violet-colored dish made by pouring the mixture in bamboo tubes then steamed. We also have a cookie variation of puto which is called puto seko that has a powdery texture. And of course, we also have puto pao which serves as a tribute to Chinese pork buns because of the sweet asado filling found inside.
Basically means layers, sapin-sapin is probably the most vibrant of all kakanin dishes you will ever encounter. Just one swift look of it and you’d think you’re seeing a fiesta happening before your eyes. Once you slice your way through the different layers and take a bite of this glorious dish, you’d taste the explosion of different flavors dancing inside your mouth. Interestingly, the name also hints the way it’s prepared. When making sapin-sapin, one must make sure that the layers are completely steamed properly so the colors will stay lively.
With its many variations and play in flavors, suman is perhaps one of the most versatile kakanin in line. Made with the basic ingredients of glutinous rice and coconut milk, it’s then shaped like thin logs, wrapped in banana leaves, then steamed to cook. You can eat it on its own and you will instantly taste the distinct flavor it has but some like it sprinkled with a little bit of brown sugar or paired with slices of fresh mangoes. If you’re feeling fancy, suman can be fried and then dipped in steaming hot chocolate.
In Eastern Samar and Leyte, they have their play on suman where they put chocolate and butter and call it moron (pronounced as mo-RON) while the Maranaos of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte have what they call dodol, which is more of a toffee-colored suman rather than the familiar white suman. It’s sometimes paired with durian fruit to bring out the creaminess of the suman. And of course, let’s not forget the popular Suman sa Ibus of Pangasinan where the suman is made with glutinous rice, coconut milk, and salt. It’s then wrapped in palm leaves or what they call buri and while it’s steaming, it releases a bright yellow color that came from the turmeric that is mixed with the water used for steaming.
As a kid or as an adult, you’d probably seen the manong who roams around the streets carrying two metal containers and shouting from afar and you probably ran your way out from the house so you can buy your favorite duo, puto and kutsinta. Now, like puto, kutsinta is also made with rice flour and sugar with the addition of lye to produce that rich, brown color. It has a jelly-like consistency and you’d probably felt your jaw became numb once or twice while munching on this goodie. Normally, kutsinta is eaten with grated coconut but a little spread (or maybe more) of yema or dulce de leche won’t hurt.
This cylindrical shaped snack will remind you of Japanese mochi, having the same consistency of chewiness. Espasol, or also called baye-baye in the province of Laguna where it’s originated, is made of rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar. Sometimes grated coconut is added. After it is cooked, it’s dusted with toasted flour so it won’t stick. Other variations of espasol are made by adding carabao’s milk, butter, and condensed milk to make the mixture richer.
This flat, chewy round delicacy is an interesting thing to watch while you’re cooking it. Made with similar ingredients of espasol, minus the powder coating, palitaw is cooked by dropping the small mixture into a pot of boiling water and wait for it to rise and appear, hence the name litaw (“to appear”). After that, it’s coated with a mixture of grated coconut, sugar, and sesame seeds, making it sweet and nutty in flavor. It may appear light to eat but a few pieces of this can make your tummy full almost instantly. Some variations include filling the inside with peanut butter or sometimes chocolate which makes the delicacy sweeter and richer.
Where to get Kakanin in Metro Manila
You can be sure to find Kakanin in most public markets and malls in Metro Manila. Although you can find them basically everywhere in the metro, there are also devoted specialty shops like Dolor’s Kakanin and Dulzeria House of Native Sweets that focuses primarily on serving quality Filipino kakanin and other native sweets, and these and many other specialty shops you can also find at malls or stand alone branches in Metro Manila.