Filipino comfort food: Rice is life

Published July 22, 2018, 6:33 PM

by Francine Ciasico


When potential super typhoon “Gardo” briefly entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility (PAR) early this month, it caused several days of rain and dark, cloudy skies.
Although ‘Gardo’ did not make landfall, the rainy days it brought about were enough to trigger a volley of sentimental postings about comfort food in social media, with majority of netizens craving for hot, steamy bowls of rice porridge in one guise or another.

Filipino delicacies best associated with the Yuletide Season, the ‘puto bumbong’ and the ‘bibingka,’ are starting to make profits for this industrious teenager this early in Olongapo City. Christmas is 96 days away. (Jonas Reyes)
puto bumbong (Jonas Reyes/Manila Bulletin file photo)

Rice, rice rice
Rice is more than comfort food; it is home, family and evokes a warm feeling that everything will be fine.
Rice in many forms also appears as morning, afternoon and midnight snacks.
Just think suman, bibingka, puto, kalamay.
Our love affair with rice begins early.

‘Am’ to lugaw, and beyond
A very thin rice broth called ‘am’ is the first non-milk food given to many Filipino babies.
It is “hugas-bigas” liquid from rinsing rice, boiled until a bit thick.
‘Am’ is also fed to anyone running a high fever; it induces sweating and lowers body temperature.
From ‘am’, the baby or the patient graduates to lugaw (rice porridge)in its many guises.

Lugaw choices
Most popular are Arroz Caldo (chicken rice porridge) and Goto (rice porridge with tripe).
My grandmother’s favorite was lugaw cooked with dried shrimps called hibe or fresh clams.
There are other variants that take a little more time and effort to prepare.
For best results, porridge is made with newly harvested rice (bigas) by itself or mixed with sticky rice (malagkit) for more body and viscosity.
Many cooks add a slice or two of fresh ginger to goto or arroz caldo.
Some toast a pinch of kasubha (local saffron) for taste and color.
For better presentation, the chicken pieces are taken out of the pot once they are tender, set aside and returned to the pot shortly before serving. This step is not necessary when making goto.

Sweet side
Sweet rice porridge with cream or coconut milk used to be peddled by ambulant vendors who have now shifted to making more profitable fried bananas.
Collectively called ginatan, the sweet porridge is flavored with either fresh corn sliced from the cob (ginatang mais), toasted mongo beans cracked in half (ginatang totong), or chocolate and milk (champorado).

International flavor
Rice porridge is also served in other Asian countries; Filipinos are most familiar with Chinese congee or chook.
The Chinese basic porridge is bland and it is up to the diner to order condiments to the rice soup before serving.
Most popular toppings are century egg, pork floss, chili sesame oil, fried onions and garlic, salted egg, green onions and poached chicken.

Rainy day craving
What makes us crave for lugaw during rainy days? Every generation has its own answer.
For my parents, it reminds them of the difficult days during World War II, when having lugaw was a luxury.
My brothers and I think of happier days before we lost both parents early.
My own kids remember when all five of them were together in one household.
And their kids?
They’re still creating memories.