The repertory of Filipino desserts includes pastillas, yema, turrones de casuy, empanaditas, pastries, jams and jellies. Fruits are preserved, candied or in syrup. Cookies and biscuits are the baked goodies often based on cassava flour or arrowroot, and coconut milk. Atcharas make use of fresh vegetables and fruits pickled in vinegar and spices, and serve as relishes. Altogether they provide contrapuntal flavors and invest a meal with added grace and the motions of ritual so dear to the Filipino. In their extravagance they are a celebration of the land’s bounty.
Quantities of these meal embellishments are made throughout the islands, particularly at Christmastime and for fiestas, when local talents rise to the occasion and bloom in the form of regional specialties. But nowhere are these produced in such variety and quantity, with such imagination and obvious love, as in San Miguel de Mayumo, a quiet town in Bulacan province about 70 kilometers from Manila. There the making of preserves, sweets, pickles and other goodies has been raised to a fine art exquisite in detail of preparation, in presentation, and ultimately, to the palate.
Many other towns make sweets in the same fine tradition, and much can be said particularly of Pampanga province, Bulacan’s next-door neighbor, which is another center of fine food. Pampanga folk make exquisite sweets too, but their reputation seems to have rested on the main courses. Bulacan is the high-water mark of the confectioner’s art which at one time flourished throughout the islands. Why the culinary arts seem to have reached their flowering in this region calls for a trip back to the 19th century.
With the formal opening of the port of Manila to world trade in 1814 after centuries of isolation, unexampled changes took place in Spanish Philippines that led to the nation’s golden century. Filipino industriousness came to the fore, commerce flourished as never before, and, with it, immense prosperity. Out of these circumstances emerged a powerful, affluent, educated Filipino middle class which was to become a force strong enough to challenge the authority of the Crown and lead the first nationalist revolution in colonial Asia. The wealthiest provinces were coffee-rich Batangas where they are said to have used peso bills to light their cigars; the coconut kingdoms” of Laguna and Tayabas (the old name of Quezon province); the tobacco-rich Ilocos provinces and the very sweet provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija and Bulacan, where hectare after hectare of the vast Central Plains sprawled with the best cane variety. The rich, who could send their sons to Europe for studies and the Grand Tour, had at their command all the other trappings of opulence: large elaborately carved houses, carriages, magnificent clothes and jewelry, oil paintings — and fine food.
The sweets of Bulacan and Pampanga stand in direct line from this period. Given land rich in natural resources and surroundings conducive to leisure, the affluent burghers with their great kitchens and legions of hacienda-household domestics commanded into being all the fine food and sweets they could indulge. And most assuredly, no ascetics were they. Pampanga, for example, once produced, as one writer put it “more sugar than could be consumed in all China” and reached a state of opulence as allowed its aristocracy to entertain on a lavish scale fit even for a prince of Czarist Russia. The prince, the Grand Duke Alexis, afterwards declared that the banquet room presented “one of the most brilliant” he had ever seen, doubtless referring to the jewelry of the ladies and the lavish table. Add to this elegant state of affairs, the dominant fiesta syndrome which manifests itself several times a year, and it is not hard to see where cooks and confectioners in the entire countryside began competing with one another to produce the finest “cake trimmings” — sweets of all kinds that were not only marvelous to the palate but visual wonders too.
Bulacan, along with Nueva Ecija and Bataan, was part of a large area known as Pampanga, before the latter’s provincial boundaries were defined in the 1750’s. The name San Miguel de Mayumo is, therefore, a hold-over from that period (mayumo being the Pampango word for “sweet” an incongruity for such a passionately Tagalog town). Having staged a culinary coup, the Bulacan sweets makers perhaps retained the name as a kind of panache gesture to a region from which they had wrested the country’s sweets supremacy.
Is the Filipino addiction to sweets a Spanish legacy? It might seem so in the case of Spanish pastries like brazo de la reina, flan, empanaditas, and ensaimadas. Yet the fondness for sweets is evident even in the case of native kakanin, those confections from rice meant to be eaten between meals. Pigafetta, chronicling the Magellan expedition in 1521, reported that the natives of Palawan “presented a gift of various foods all made only of rice, some in leaves made with rather long pieces of sugar loaves, others like tarts with eggs and honey.” As the sweet tooth antedated the conquista, it can only be indigenous.
Perhaps the most popular Philippine sweet is pastillas de leche, a sweet based on carabao’s milk.
The deep purple glutinous yam known as ube goes into the making of delicious pastillas and jam. When you get de ube that is less than good, the culprit may be the omission of carabao’s milk or, a heinous sin, the use of white yam with purple food coloring. But given fresh milk and real lube, deviations from excellence may come from too much sugar or too little other factors beyond the layman’s scope of awareness are the maturity of the ube, its source (whether from sandy or volcanic soil), and the age of the baby carabao, which determines the milk’s consistency.
In many regions ube jam (or pastillas) is made from ube pounded and then run through a sieve of sinamay, a stiff loosely-woven fabric. In Bulacan, however, they make it a point to grind the yam to a uniformly fine consistency. The superiority of one or the other is arguable, since some people like their ube jam smooth as paste, while others equally epicurean prefer an uneven consistency for the “feel” of the ube granules on their tongue.
Other fruits and tubers that lend themselves well to jamming are mango kalabasa (squash) and the humble kamote (sweet potato). In each case the cooking process describes the Filipino way of preparing for a feast: utmost care in the selection of ingredients and an unflinching laboriousness. In the case of jams, a constant, almost penitential stirring over the slowest fire while the mixture thickens (and gets tougher to stir) to the desired point of doneness. It is as if the end indulgence, the sheer joy of eating, could be expiated by the means.
Philippine fruits that make jellies of great clarity include high-pectin guava and tamarind and low-pectin pineapple and Baguio strawberries and blueberries.
The making of turrones de casuy and empanaditas (which also calls for casuy nuts and honey) is not a matter of rote recipe. In fact, in the traditional Filipino school of virtuoso cooking known as mix and taste rote measurements are disdained as inimical to a true cook’s creativity. One simply knew how to make superlative sweets from watching them made in one’s house numberless times — no one bothered to write down measurements. Problems undreamed of by the ecstatic gourmand contemplating turrones nclude the procuring of honey, which is gathered from such far-flung places as Davao, Palawan and the Bicol peninsula. Honey from different sources necessitates fine adjustments in the cooking as these have different flavors, a subtlety that experts can detect.
In fruit preserves the artistry of the San Miguel folk rises to peak visibility. Here are fruits translucent in the transparent syrup, whole or in sections, wondrously embossed by the fruit carver’s knife with floral, leaf or curvilinear designs, yet looking for all the world as if freshly plucked from the tree. A row of these fruit preserves suha, santol, kundol, dayap and guayabano has sent at least one gastronome into hysterics. When the visual feast proved highly edible too in fact, a tactile sonnet on the tongue the gastronome declared himself ready to drop out of the world, he had tasted the ultimate in sweets.
To the sweetsmaker the ultimate achievement is to be able to pick fresh fruits that are in prime and perfect condition, coax the fruit carver into an artistic mood in San Miguel, alas only a handful of old ladies remain at the patient and painstaking craft — de-acidify the fruits and cook them to a juicy, flavorful tenderness, in living color yet.
Suha, for instance, which makes the best (most succulent) embossed preserve, must be picked just before it ripens fully which means that to enjoy the rind as fruit preserve, you have to sacrifice the flesh of the fruit. Suha is “embroidered” with the design, “washed” — that is, placed in several changes of a salt-water solution — “pressed” and thoroughly dried before being cooked in syrup. On the other hand, dayap, which is a tart flavorful lemon the size of a golf ball, is first “embroidered,” boiled, and then divested of pulp before it is placed in syrup. The grand old lady among the San Miguel fruit carvers can incise her inimitable flower designs on about a hundred dayap a day, a production rate that means roughly three and a half large jars of those gorgeously carved fruit preserves. The lady also transforms santol into roses literally good enough to eat. So what happens when she stops carving fruit? One can take pictures of her marvelous edible folk art right now, as remembrances when this has become a vanished art.
Fruits whose colors are to be retained are cooked in copper vats called taliyasi over s-l-o-w fire. A sterilized copper one-centavo coin is thrown in for good measure during the cooking, just to show that San Miguel folk don’t take chances on getting the desired results. It takes precise timing to carve and cook fruits before they discolor, and time, patience and care in the cooking to keep the fruitcarver’s art intact through the process until it is bottled
Filipinos love the carver’s art. They carve everything from the woodwork of their houses and furniture to the heels of their wooden shoes; from preserved fruits and pickles to the individually (daintily) carved toothpicks, artfully assembled into a stunning centerpiece on the fiesta tables of yesteryear High-piled jam on huge platters were carved into fish or swan or flowers, down to the minutest details, before being set on the party table (a sculpting tradition carried on by Filipino kitchen tists in the international hotels where hunks of ice are carved into life-size deer or rooster or whatever, dazzling all for the duration of the party.) When there was nothing left to carve, they cut out with the same drive for the painstaking and the fragile in their art paper into exquisite candy wrappings.
Which brings us back for a while to pastillas. The twin craft of fruit carving in the Filipino fiesta framework is the cutting of multicolored papel de Japon (the same paper used for Philippine lanterns and kites) into wrapping, each of which trails a tail with delicately cut-out designs of hearts and flowers (nipa hut and vine, names and messages of remembrance Ala-ala and Recuerdo of a sentimental age) These are precisely cut out with sharp scissors by anonymous craftswomen with a fund of artistry, patience and time. The fragile artwork is best displayed on a wooden epergne, usually carved, which graced the festive 19th-century tables, where the ntricately cut-out tails are shown off in their shimmering evanescence.
Deceptively fragile-looking are the candied fruits. which include kundol, naranja, dayap, suha, kamias, balimbing, santol, tamarind, rimas (breadfruit), pineapple, nangka macopa and even tomatoes that keep up to three months if properly processed. The thing to remember is that the beauty of these sparkling confections depends on sparkling weather. You don’t make candied fruit on a cloudy day as the glaze is sure to cloud and the confection would be less than delectable. Sweetsmakers are experts in determining the alchemy that transforms acidic fruit into morsels of delight.
Fruit preserves that need no fruit-carver’s knife for their image include nangka, mango, makapuno ated or coaxed into balls), garbanzos (chickpeas and half a dozen others. It is not unusual during fiestas for a house to serve a tableful of desserts several kinds of jam, rows of fruit preserves, pastries and candies on epergnes, with ice cream and the fruits of the season. As many fiestas are held in summer in conjunction with invariably abundant harvests, such festive board as the hospitable Filipino lays out can look like an overflowing basket of plenty. In the Philippines a feast ends with a whimper of joy over just desserts often with the bang of fireworks too. The achar as of the islands preserve in vinegar or brine a wealth of vegetables and fruits. Derived from achar, an Anglo-Indian word for salt relish or condiment, the achara is, like rice, a meal feature that the archipelago shares with a good part of Asia Distinct in concept and flavor from the Western pickles, the Philippine achara is distinctly compatible with Filipino dishes.
To most Filipinos, achara means grated unripe papaya mixed with green and red bell pepper, native onions garlic and ginger turmeric pickled in vinegar with sugar, salt and spices Carrots, cucumber and turnips only enter the picture for decorative purposes when the achara is prepared for a fiesta or for gift-giving, in which case the fruit carver’s art comes to the fore again. A special bottle of achara will have as embellishment carved miniature nipa huts with a carabao and coconut tree, or stylized leaf and flower design or the name of the recipient if the jar is being presented as a gift. Words like Recuerdo and Ala-ala recur as reminders of a genteel time when people set store on the amenities of friendship. Such embellishments were pressed to the sides of the “Ball” brand jars of old in the most attractive and appetizing fashion.
A pickled delicacy is ubod, literally the heart of a coconut tree. Another is acharang dampalit, the young tops of greens, inaccurately called seaweeds, that grow in the fishponds of Luzon Mustard leaves, kamias, green mango as well as a somewhat acrid but curiously appetizing variety of mango called paho, make pungent relishes preserved in brine. A bouquet of pickled vegetables like okra (gumbo) ampalaya (bittermelon) and talong (eggplant) is more popular abroad and therefore mainly exported.
The difference between an indifferent achara and one that sings in a high note of relish is simply the use of a special kind of vinegar: sukang Paombong (vinegar from Paombong Bulacan province). Its excellence transfers to the vegetables in which it is the pickling agent.
Philippine cookies are baked goodies largely based on arrowroot, cassava or some other special flour, often with coconut milk as a distinctive ingredient. Seldom considered as dessert and only as the most marginal merienda fare, they are meant for nibbling during those round-the-clock snack hours, or to serve to chance visitors (for seldom can you step into a Filipino house without being served a spot of sweet or cookies and soft drinks or, at the very least, a glass of cold water).
Regional specialties abound. There are the broas of Lukban, Quezon province, which are meringue-light crisp lady fingers; the rosquillos, an egg-rich circle biscuit, and hojaldres of Cebu; and the daintily-flaked utap of Iloilo. Among the most popular cookies is kamachile, baked around the Tagalog region, which is shaped like the kamachile fruit after which it is named. Like biscocho (recycled bread baked crisp) and the other regional cookies kamachile is particularly good as foil for the savory native pancit (noodles) P dishes, regional in flavor, such as pancit Malabon (distinguished by the oysters and flaked smoked fish of this fishing town), pancit Meycawayan (with casuy fruit and pulverized chicharon, which are town specialties) pancit luglog and even the soup-like pancit Molo of Iloilo. Curiously kamachile and other native cookies display no particular rapport with the flavor of Chinese pancit. Try it and see.
Another specialty are the delicious and crumbly araro cookies made from arrowroot flour baked by Laguna folk. Cookies and biscuits with names like galyetas, gurguria and puto seco evoke nostalgia for childhood summers in the provinces where they are still baked by bakers blissfully unaware of the inroads of supermarket brownies, food-for-the-gods and oatmeal cookies. Though commercially available Philippine cookies retain a folksy home-made quality for the reason that they are. Baked by folk for home consumption, the cookies are often peddled in the marketplace by the baker herself.
Ensaimadas are, of course, Spanish-derived, as are tarts (ten kinds are baked in San Miguel) and empanaditas, which are made from chopped casuy nuts, honey and a special kind of flour. In the heyday of railroad travel, commuters were treated (as commuters throughout Luzon are still treated at bus stops on the countryside) to a line of snacks vended at the station stops. This included the famous puto-kutchinta of Polo Bulacan; fruits of the season chucherias (a variety of tidbits) and the very popular Malolos ensaimadas. Served with a demi-cup of hot thick Filipino chocolate (often frothy with an egg beaten in), this soft, plump specialty bread makes a breakfast or merienda fit for nobility. For the Christmas media noche, New Year’s Eve, at fiestas and other special occasions, ensaimadas become superspecial with a generous dash of grated Dutch ball cheese evidence that Filipinos do tend to gild the lily.
Vanished from the scene is the once very popular and traditional pan de San Nicolas, a special cookie made of arrow-root and coconut milk. Moulded with the image of St. Nicholas in relief, it was distributed to parishioners after Mass at the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 and all through Christmastime. As St. Nicholas is a patron saint of children, the decorated wafers were then the only visual tie children had with the saint who was to evolve into the modern Santa Claus.
Until recent years, pan de San Nicolas survived as a special cookie baked in Pampango and Tagalog towns where it was known as minarka, marked. The design and motif have been described as a marvelous Filipino abstraction and stylization much like the rice cakes of Pakil Laguna” embossed with the image of the Virgin of Turumba.
The hardwood mould of pan de San Nicolas, carved on both sides, measures about 24 x 16 centimeters. Like the wood moulds of Vienna’s Kaisersemmel (the Emperor’s roll which bore his picture in relief), these are now prized collectors’ items, marvelous by themselves in being precisely carved but, more important, as relics from another age when there was time and the grace for niceties even in the most utilitarian items.