It’s Foodie Tuesday!
I have established in a previous post that rice is the ultimate absolute indispensable carb in Asia. As the all-important crop and the ever-present pantry staple, peoples and cultures from every nook and cranny of this continent have gotten creative with it. Different countries have come up with a mind-boggling number of ways to enjoy this most ubiquitous of grains — from savory appetizers and entrees, to sweet snacks and desserts.
Let’s check out one itty-bitty section of this rice universe — the rice cakes. Loosely defined, a rice cake is any cake that’s made of, er, rice. With such a broad definition, no wonder there are so many of them! The rice part can take on many forms: some rice cakes use whole grains of rice, some use sticky rice, some use rice flour, and some use ground rice paste. Factor in different combinations of ingredients, different cultures, different seasons, and you’ll get the idea of how many different kinds of rice cakes there are. Here are some of the most celebrated.
In the Philippines sweet treats that are made of rice fall under the umbrella classification kakanin, from the root word kanin, which is the Tagalog term for cooked rice. The traditional main ingredient is galapong, which is a rice paste made by grinding rice that has been soaked overnight. Apparently the overnight soaking releases some kind of yeast that helps the rice cakes rise.
The most popular rice cake is the puto, because it has a mild subtle flavor and only slightly sweetened, one can really eat a lot of it. It is a steamed cake made from galapong, sugar, and coconut milk. My dad often tells stories of how his family used to have a puto business when he was a boy. He would grind up the soaked rice in a big stone grinder, then my grandmother would prepare the batter and steam it in a large round tray. When the puto was all done, my dad would cut it up into wedges and peddle them around the neighborhood. Nowadays we just buy our puto and they’re usually in mini-muffin sizes. Check out this puto recipe by Cafe Munchkin.
Another popular kakanin is bibingka, and it also begins with galapong, to which eggs, coconut milk and sugar are added. It is cooked between two layers of hot coals in a vessel lined with banana leaf, which brings a most flavorful smokiness to it. The final product is usually topped with salted egg and white cheese, with some grated coconut on the side.
Biko, on the other hand, is not made from galapong. It is made from whole grains of sticky rice, coconut milk, and raw sugar.
Sakura mochi is named thus because it is meant to look like sakura, cherry blossom. It is so pretty! It is widely popular during Japan’s Girls’ Festival. It is colored a delicate pale pink and wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. It is made from pounded up sweet sticky rice. A bite would yield a contrast of savory tartness from the leaf, smooth sweet from the rice, with a suprise flood of red bean paste hidden in its center.
What is Lunar New Year without Nian Gao (literally, “Year Cake”)? It is usually emblazoned with good luck words, and it is consumed during the big family feast, with the hope that the luck will be absorbed, and that the stickiness and sweetness will bind the family closer together.
Ddeok is the generic term for Korean rice cakes that are made from glutinous rice flour. There is a celebratory vibe in ddeok, as it is associated with Korean holidays and feasts. These rice cakes are classified according to the way they are prepared: The old classic steamed ddeok, much like the Filipino puto; the pounded ddeok begin with cooked rice that has been beaten to a pulp (like mochi); boiled ddeok are shaped from a dough made from rice flour and hot water; and pan-fried ddeok are small and cute, and flat like pancakes and fried.