How the pandemic reacquainted Filipinos with our own native delicacies
When I think back on this pandemic in the future, I will remember deep anxiety. I will remember endless days and endless nights, the thrum of uncertainty and panic drilling a hole into my chest. I will remember constant nausea and a feeling of my heart constantly dropping into my stomach with every bad news.
But also, I will remember a profusion of colors seeping at the edges of gray, hope and joy in the barren wasteland, care of—and I am serious—an endless parade of vibrantly colored kakanin I have consumed this lockdown. Purple, red, brown, orange, yellow—all kinds of colors, which have given me joy—kakanin that I otherwise wouldn’t have touched were I not stuck at home, in a pandemic, at the mercy of entrepreneurial neighbors who sold them at the village Facebook page.
As an aging Millennial, I was weaned on a diet of fastfood, and a smorgasboard of international choices. Who brings kakanin to eat at cinemas? Who eats kakanin at meetings? Who snacks on bibingka during a long drive? So in the world before Covid, it became an anachronism, food that represented tradition, fiestas, our grandparents. “You know you’re old when you crave kakanin,” said a meme (I might have invented that meme).
Kakanin would bring nostalgia for those who grew up in the provinces, in older times, when there was nothing else available to eat for merienda in those long, slow afternoons, except what you could make in your kitchen.
And then, the pandemic happened. And then with it, long slow afternoons for many.
In the early days of the lockdown, when the world was still reeling from having the rug pulled from under its feet, and the food industry ground to a halt—stores shuttered, personnel laid off, businesses unable to make rent—there was an overwhelming feeling of needing something familiar, something basic, earthy, simple, uncomplicated. Something that could be made without machines or produced without an assembly line. Something that grounded us.
As specialty and baking supplies shops closed in the beginning, homebakers started creating simple food that were readily available.
Who brings kakanin to eat at cinemas? Who eats kakanin at meetings? Who snacks on bibingka during a long drive? So in the world before Covid, it became an anachronism, food that represented tradition, fiestas, our grandparents.
Enterprising people who were laid off from their jobs or found themselves having too much time on their hands, tried their hands at baking—and out of their small kitchens emerged ready to sell ube pandesal, leche flan, palitaw, suman, even ginataang bilo-bilo.
To make bibingka, you only needed very few things—galapong (milled glutinous rice) or rice flour if you were pressed for time, coconut milk, margarine, and sugar.
Whether you’re from Calasiao, or Marikina, or Leyte, puto was easy to make with just rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar. Another iteration of the same ingredients—suman, with just glutinous rice, coconut milk, and sugar. Kakanin is basically just comprised of flour, sugar, annatto powder, and lye water—topped with, again, grated coconut.
So as the world crumbled, glutinous rice—the most basic ingredient of many of our kakanin—helped hold us together.
And those who couldn’t bake resold or bought. I have never ordered so many things from so many provinces, not just because they all looked so good, and were readily available, but as a gesture of solidarity and support for fellow Filipinos trying to survive. For the first time, I tried Laguna’s espasol. (Who knew that our espasol, which has the taste and consistency of mochi, is even better than Japan’s mochi?) Originating from Laguna, espasol is a cylindrical sweet rice cake that is also made of glutinous rice flour, coconut milk, sugar, and for that little extra, shredded buko or young coconut.
I tried puto from Calasiao. I ordered food from as far as Ilocos (royal bibingka from Vigan is the bomb) and binagol from Leyte. Our dessert as we welcomed the New Year wasn’t some fancy cake—it was inutak, which again I tasted for the first time in my life, and which is so sinfully good, I feel a pool of saliva forming in my mouth as I type this. It was like cake, as in it was done in layers, but it is made from sticky rice and purple yam—cooked with coconut cream, coconut milk, evaporated milk, and sugar. Still one of the best things I’ve eaten in 2020.
To support my neighbors, I have ordered maja blanca, suman, biko, cassava cake, nilupak, carioca, and banana que. People sent me new kinds of desserts, the most memorable of which is this yema-filled pastillas (which combine two of my favorite things) that have sent my insulin into overdrive. I have gained 20 pounds since the pandemic began, and yes I recognize the ridiculousness of becoming fat at a time of a world crisis. But I also recognize that this pandemic gave me a chance to celebrate what is truly our own—a rich variety of Filipino local snacks that otherwise I wouldn’t have had the willingness, opportunity, or sense of adventure to try.