Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Simbang gabi has begun, and once again the cold air surrounding churchyards is laced with the delicious aroma of bibingka baking on charcoal-fed baking tins or clay pots lined with banana leaves. For some, it is a treat too tempting to resist, prompting churchgoers to bite into the treat from paper bags as soon as it touches their hands. Some delay the gratification until they get home, the bibingka to be enjoyed with the rest of the family during breakfast.
What makes a bibingka a bibingka? The terminology is derived from the manner or vessel in which the dish is prepared — through the bibingkahan, the contraption that cooks a dish with heat from the bottom of the pan and over it, usually done with embers heating up a piece of metal that covers the bibingka. That is why the burnt upper crust of the rice cake has become a prerequisite to calling the cake as such.
Despite changes to its preparation, the bibingka is one of our most ancient rice recipes, one that had been prepared by Filipinos long before the arrival of the Spaniards. References to this kind of rice cake is shared among our Southeast Asian neighbors extending as far as India. Italian historian Antonio Pigafetta in the 16th century described rice treats prepared by early island folks of Palawan as “resembling sugar loaves, while others were made in the manner of tarts with eggs and honey” to refer to treats sent to arriving Spaniards in the island. He further noted that these foods came wrapped in banana leaves and were given as gifts.
Filipinos have created a wide variety of rice cakes, including the bibingka and puto bumbong, as a common snack or merienda in our culture. They are generally called kakanin, from the word kanin, meaning (prepared) rice.
Bibingka originally was just made with rice and water, or sometimes with coconut sap. When rice is soaked in water, it ferments and collect natural yeast from the atmosphere, which expands when cooked. It works the very same way as when making sourdough bread. The food ferments to develop its own leavening agent. After which, the rice is ground into a paste and results to what is called galapong.
This galapong is a base for many sorts of rice cakes, and the resulting texture from its use depends on the type of rice used. When malagkit is used, it can make the palitaw. If purple rice is used, it can be transformed into the puto bumbong. (Real puto bumbong has a deep purple to brown color, because it traditionally uses naturally purple rice called pirurutong and has a slightly tangy flavor.) The “regular” rice makes our puto and bibingka.
When I was seven or eight years old, I vividly remember learning to cook puto from a neighbor, Manang Carmen, who was from Leyte. It was a test of patience: the rice had to be soaked in water for a day, before being brought to the wet market to have it ground into the galapong. The galapong was mixed with sugar and some baking powder to make a smooth silken batter, which was later poured into banana leaf lined tins. But first we had to trim off the rough and uneven edges of the leaves, and pass it through the fire to make it pliant and less brittle when fitted into the tins.
I attempted to perform such a task on my own. On occasion, I would rush to take the barely soaked rice to the market to grind, or I would put the batter into the kawali before it was hot enough, or I would do something unmindfully that the cake would turn out wrong. Instead of a fluffy piece of white puto, I would end up with a rubbery and grayish disk we would describe as “na tikoy,” which we ate and enjoyed as well.
I wouldn’t be surprised that among the variations of rice cakes and kakanin in the country — the puto, bibingka, and puto bumbong included — hundreds could have been the result of many delicious accidents. I’ve tried bibingka that is tough and chewy, some gooey and sticky, others sweet and tangy. I’ve encountered a bibingka that uses ground birdseed, others with the addition of shredded coconut, and others made with cassava. I even make mine with not only one but three types of cheese.
Set against this backdrop of diversity, kakanin and feasting are inseparable for Filipinos. Eating kakanin is not only a part of our diet, but also of our indigenous culture and an expression of our native spirituality with which we offer rice cakes of various shapes and sizes to deities and demigods of our pre-Christian festivals. The practice was carried over to the celebration of Christian festivals across the Philippines throughout the centuries. The preparing and serving of the bibingka, among other Christmas treats, could be related to our pre-Hispanic beliefs.
Moving into the Spanish period, Filipino middle- and upper-class acquired the practice of having a mid-morning snack called segunda almuerzo, a complete lunch after, then merienda at 4 p.m. and a full dinner with dessert. The habit lived on, even in the hustle and bustle of modern Philippine life. Everyone lives between meals, which explains the Filipino greeting of “Nakakain ka na ba?” or “Have you eaten?” And when we have bibingka, we often quip: “Parang Pasko lang, ‘diba?”