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In Praise Of Suman Past

By Elmer I. Nocheseda

Suman is at the center of Philippine Christmas cooking. I had lots of them this Christmas! The Filipino has accepted into his Christmas tradition the celebrative powers of this native kakanin. Though Pinoy food accepts influences from other cultures, the fundamentals of suman remain the same. They originate from the harvest feasting of the early Filipinos before the arrival of Hispanic and American influences. The early Tagalog-Spanish dictionary of Domingo de los Santos in the 1700s even explains kakanin and calamay as alay, that is offering. All our celebrations have gone through a long process of syncretism, and yet they have survived through the years. Filipino Christmas and other celebrations have always been accompanied by suman.

Suman sa Ibos

Kakanin like suman is ranked No. 7 in the list of “100 Best Things About Being Pinoy” found in several Web sites managed by some Pinoy expats. The list says, "Kakanin, puto, kutsinta, sapin-sapin, suman sa ibus, bibingka, puto bungbong, maja blanka, bico, atbp. What would fiestas, Pasko, Bagong Taon, at Pista ng Patay be without these native delicacies?"

For Filipinos, festive food must be shared. The tradition of suman binds them together. More important than what is eaten is the joy of eating together, and for suman, what is also meaningful is wrapping and making suman together.

Suman is best prepared at home. Christmas reminds us of many sumans past, of coming home from a long trip and smelling the aroma of lola’s suman waiting on the table. It reminds us of how it was prepared. For it warms the heart to know that it was done with much love and care. The preparation involves a tedious process, and the cooking takes much time.

Suman Formula

We know how difficult the process is. The malagquit rice is thoroughly cleaned and polished. Some rice varieties are now even harder to find like the lavender pirurutong. Sometimes, rice has to be wet-milled to a sticky consistency. We still keep the stone mill used by my grandmother at home now just as an accent piece. Coconut meat should be scraped finely from the shell in a kudkuran and then squeezed to get the kakang gata. Then this is mixed with other ingredients like sugar and salt in delicate proportion, and afterwards individually wrapped in fresh banana leaves, or young ibus leaves of coconut palm. Sometimes sasa and nipa leaves, young nodes of buho bamboo or empty coconut shell, if available.

The wrapping is an art in itself that has to be mastered. It distinguishes one suman from the others. Then it is baked, steamed or boiled to perfection. If one is remiss, it ends in disgracia.

The process of making suman is not written in recipe books for it may vary with the available equipment. The taste depends on the obtainable ingredients peculiar to an area. The “secret” is handed down from the lola to her apo by them making suman together. Precious lessons, like tancha-tancha lang, are taught in the process. Improvements are made from the mistakes. But if the apo is not good enough to remember, much of the secret may be gone with the lola.

There is indeed joy in the anticipation of our traditional suman. These are not only breakfast food to fill the stomach but also painit food to warm the heart. For lack of exact translation, early Spanish dictionaries translate them as comidilla or slight repast, as the peculiar pleasure afforded by this food strikes our fancy, as opposed to comida, which is a full meal to satiate.

The 1613 Vocabulario de Lengua Tagala of Fr. Pedro de San Buenaventura uses the Mexican word tamales to translate suman. In another text he describes it as arroz envuelto or wrapped rice in leaves, lacking the exact term to render it in Spanish.

Suman Geography

There is a long list of suman in the Philippines. Almost every town boasts of a specialty. Suman sa antala and suman sa ibos are cooked with coconut milk and salt. Suman sa antala is wrapped in heat-wilted banana leaves and steamed for 30 minutes to an hour, but for suman sa ibos the malagquit rice soaked in coconut milk mixture is packed loosely into nipa or palm leaves (ibos) and boiled for two hours until done. In suman sa lihiya, the soaked rice is treated with lye, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled for two hours until done. Suman sa ibos is usually served with sugar, while suman sa lihiya is served with grated-coconut, brown sugar or latek (coconut jam).

Palitaw is made from a flattened wet-milled batter of polished rice dropped into boiling water; after the cakes float they are dropped into cold water to prevent them from sticking to each other. They are drained and served with grated coconut, sugar and pounded sesame seeds.

The espasol of Laguna and Quezon is made from coconut milk and sugar syrup to which cooked milled rice is added, followed by toasted and powdered waxy rice. The paste is rolled with a rolling pin and cut into various shapes. Roasted rice powder is sprinkled over the paste to prevent sticking. In Quezon, they also make tikoy wrapped in anahaw leaves like corn cubs. It is milky and delicious, and curiously wrapped.

We have indigenized the Mexican tamales which the Pampango version contains toasted, ground rice and a mixture of peanuts, sugar, spices like anis and ground meat, which is cooked with coconut milk until thick enough to hold its shape. They also put slivers of itlog na maalat. It is then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for two hours.

Wet-milled malagquit or waxy rice flour may be kneaded with water and converted to sweetened rice cake by adding sugar and other ingredients before steaming to make puto. Bibingka is wet-milled malagquit with sugar and coconut milk, baked in a banana-leaf lined earth stoves with live charcoal on top and bottom until brown. In Sagay, Negros Occidental, they make it smaller like tinapay, which one can eat while walking, and use coconut shell coals to broil them.

Another rice cake, puto kutsinta, is an unleavened cake textured like a stiff and chewy pudding, and is prepared from wet-milled rice flour with sugar and lye. Calasiao in Pangasinan makes them in small chewy pieces that smell heavenly indeed, as they are wrapped in green banana leaves in brown bags.

The late Doreen Fernandez remembers that in Vigan of old, "a community fire was built to cook the tinubong - the rice mixture poured into bamboo tubes - while everyone was at midnight Mass. The sound of Media Noche was thus the crackling of hot, charred bamboo tubes in hands eager to get at their steaming contents."

I have tasted the tuao tinubong in Piat, Cagayan. It is a delicacy! The burnt flavor of fresh bamboo nodes and the aroma of arrekek leaves provide the distinct flavors. The mixture of malagkit, gata, and salt provide a creative harmony and contrast from what is available. They will split the bamboo in half for you to enjoy the mixture. You can dip the suman in salt or sugar. Exquisite!

The Ibanags of Cagayan also have boiled inatata suman in banana leaves. Their tinupig has the burnt flavor of banana leaves, while their pawa is made from milled galapong with peanuts, and their biko is made from the original pirurutong.

In Laoag, people cook tupig in a more traditional way. They flavor it with molasses and grated coconut. To cook it, they bury it under a burning mound of ipa or rice chaff, so you also get that special smoky flavor. This is different from simply broiling them on live coal.

There are other regional specialties. In Iloilo, they have the suman latik made from pilit rice and generous toppings of sweet coconut jam are wrapped in green banana leaves. They also prepare in Situ the puto lanson made from grated cassava steamed with brown sugar and grated coconut in banana leaves. They make delicate compositions from available material using ingenious food technology.

One local delicacy that best symbolizes Tacloban is the binagul, which takes much time to prepare. This is a distant cousin of Bohol’s calamay. Both are related in the coconut shell used as packaging material. However, while binagul uses only half the shell, calamay uses both half bound with red strip of paper. Their relation ends there: the binagul is made from taro whereas calamay uses milled rice grain. The binagul’s chunky and chewy contents are covered with leaves, usually taro, and tied handsomely with a string.

The binagul has a coarse texture and the bottom portion is usually the sweetest part of the preparation. Groundnuts add texture. A binagul connoisseur would likely skip the crust, which is usually less sweet, and go directly to the gooey and syrupy bottom. In addition, one buys binagul early in the morning, when the product is still hot and fresh, for it might spoil by the end of the day.

The Cebuanos enjoy eating puto-maya with cups of hot tsokolate. Puto-maya is actually more like suman than the puto we know. It is steamed malagkit na bigas and flavored with grated ginger, coconut milk, and sugar. We scoop it into our plates because it is not wrapped in banana leaves. And it is perfect too with scoops of sweet, ripe Cebu mangoes!

In Tacloban, you could also have the best moron (well, yes, it sounds like ...). It is actually a clever mixture of influences. They mix chocolate with your ordinary suman. It is also fun to watch how they make it.

Filipinos make good use of what is available. And they have fun in doing so.

Suman Wrap

Suman wrapping is an art in itself. It is also part of the fun and its aesthetics. Like presents, wrapped suman is most festive. They use leaves found in their environment. The most common is banana leaves and coconut fresh ibus sprouts called lukay in Cebuano. They also use other palm leaves like anahaw, nipa, and buli. Some use fresh buho bamboo or empty coconut shells. Others use leaves found only in their area like arrekek in Cagayan and hagikhik in Leyte.

They make variations in shape. In Buting, Pasig the late Ti Onyang Ochoa used to wrap suman like a balisunsong while my Lola Gorya in Pateros wraps it like a rectangle. They both choose the younger banana leaves as they are sweeter. Both of them are now gone six feet under and nobody can wrap our suman as well as they could wrap a hundred pieces in a jiffy. “Pag sobrang higpit, puputok; pag sobrang luwag, sasabog.” It almost sounded like a rhyme when Ti Onyang reminds her nephews and nieces "kung paano balutin ang isang dakot na kanin."

In Zamboanga, they make cones of banana leaves where suman is eaten like ice cream. In Cebu, Dumaguete and Glan in Sarangani, the basic pusu is intricately woven from fresh coconut leaves. The basic shape is a four-sided, diamond-shaped casing like the heart, or pusu, of the banana tree. The late William Henry Scott scanning ancient Cebuano dictionaries found long-forgotten terms to describe these wrappers like binuwaya (crocodile shape), linalaki (shape of a man) and kumol sin dato (Datu’s fist).

There is also an octahedron, an eight-sided, six-pointed complicated version, which they call pinagi (like stingray). Only dexterous hands could weave such packets from coconut leaflets. I have watched pusu weavers in Cebu make these small baskets while listening to Cebuano soap operas. I really marvel at their dexterity.

A seven-year-old girl from Dagupan could not say anything in Tagalog but taught me how to weave their patupat wrappers shaped like a rectangular pouch. It was difficult to follow from the start considering our language barrier. She made several variations. She started using two leaflets, then four leaflets, and then eight leaflets with increasing degree of complexity! Well, I forgot them all.

Suman Sacraments

The Yakans in Basilan create the shape of birds for the suman wrappers, which they call tamu. They also use tamu as a counter for rice. Together with boiled eggs, they form part of their ritual offering for the important rites of Pagtimbang and Paggunting. Like in Romblon, suman is part of their ritual called mahikaw. In Pateros, suman is used in their pasubo ritual for the legendary buaya of Sta. Marta fiesta every February and July.

Antipolo during their May-time tradition is full of suman sa ibus. They wrap their suman by making horizontal coils of the leaf and fix it with a string made from long palm strips. They color it yellow to look more enticing.

In Bacolod, they wrap their suman in leaf pockets made by vertically folding the strips and then coiling the thinner tips of the leaf around the suman.

In Infanta, Quezon, they do not just coil it, they weave the leaflets through, thus making intricate patterns. And mind you, they use suman to decorate their houses to honor San Isidro Labrador in the Pahiyas of Lucban, Sariaya and Gumaca in May.

Moreover, in Baler, they make the extreme honor of extolling the suman as part of their life, art, passion, and blessings. They have set a day in February to honor the lowly suman. They have an Araw ng Suman, where you can have all the suman you can eat for free!

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