Text and Photos by Joy Rosal-Sumagaysay
Ask an Ilonggo kakanin vendor about a collective term for her delicacies and she will tell you “neytib foods.” Interestingly, there seems to be no Hiligaynon equivalent for the word kakanin or native cakes; the 1931 Kaufmann Dictionary documented none. To Ilonggos, perhaps, these kakanin are so distinct that to lump them under a generic term is to decrease their culinary worth. Of course, mine is just a theory. The late food guru, Dr. Doreen Fernandez must have a better answer than this. One such neytib food popular in Iloilo and in the entire Western Visayas is suman latik, basically a rectangular bed of pilit (glutinous rice) topped with latik or bukayo (candied young coconut) served during breakfast or snacks.
I grew up loving suman latik more than the other rice cakes of my childhood like ibos, but-ong, suman and alupi. At Jaro, Iloilo’s Thursday market, the Huebesan , how delightful it was to see tiyay carefully unfold the banana leaf and get from her kaserola a spoonful of bukayo to spread on the thin suman. After that, she would refold the banana leaf and hand me my treat.
As horizons expanded, I found, in the district of La Paz (home of the famous Batchoy), suman latik packaged like miniature overstuffed green pillows. Its contents revealed a tempting mound of finely-shredded bukayo heaped on an extra-thick suman bed. My search for the maker of this exceptional suman latik led me to the home of Daprosa Ambid in barangay Baldosa. (Once a brick manufacturing center in Spanish times, Baldosa, as well as neighboring Ingore, is now the kakanin capital of Iloilo City.
Dapro to her neighbors and Rosa to her suki, she started producing various kakanins in 1963, a skill she inherited from her mother. Although suman latik making is common knowledge in Panay and Negros, Manang Rosa can be credited with setting the standard and improving its packaging.
I have never seen such devotion to quality than at Manang Rosa’s. In this humble Baldosa abode was an amiable old woman extremely particular about the ingredients, method and appearance of her indigenous cakes.
The whole process starts with excellent unadulterated pilit, thoroughly washed, seasoned with salt and mixed with her extraordinary ingredient: kulitis lye. Extracted through a laborious process from the kulitis plant (slender Amaranth), this natural lye is the secret to her suman latik’s longer shelf-life. Manang Rosa recalls with amusement how people thought her crazy as she scoured roadsides, vacant lots and open fields for mature kulitis and pulled them out by the dozen.
Once prepared, the pilit mixture is ready for wrapping. Two spoonfuls are placed on a banana leaf quickly folded for the grains to cook to a nicely firm but moist layer. Tied in pairs, the wrapped suman are stacked compactly inside a recycled can of cooking oil, filled with water and covered with a weighted down pad of banana leaves. After 2-3 hours of intense boiling over a fire supplied by wood shavings and sibucao, the suman is ready to cool.
Now for the latik/bukayo. Unlike other makers, Manang Rosa has never used grated coconut as sweet topping. She will have nothing else but tender bukayuon meat, shredded to incredibly fine strips. Bukayuon are coconuts older than butong (ideal for buko juice) but younger than lukadon. Honesto General (The Coconut Cookery of Bicol) describes the lukadon as coconuts hard enough for grating but still immature to produce gata. Ilonggos share in this definition. But unlike the Bicolanos who are content with lukadon for their bukayo, Ilonggos favor the bukayuon grade. Manang Rosa’s insistence on shredding the bukayuon to such thin “noodles” (the finest I’ve ever seen) and slow-cooking it in rich brown muscovado is what sets her latik apart. It is firm and thick, not soggy nor syrupy.
With the sweetened coconut prepared in advance and the pilit rectangles cooled, the rice cake ready for packaging. The suman is removed from the wet, discolored banana leaf it was boiled in and transferred to a clean and shiny piece. Manang Rosa thought of this innovation, a couple of decades back, after getting feedback from her bank customers who found it messy to unwrap the sticky banana casing. With the suman resting on its new lining, a generous serving of luscious latik is heaped on top and the banana leaf is folded in the signature look of the Baldosa delight.
At 72, Manang Rosa still handles the preparation of the pilit herself for herein lies the right flavor and longevity of the kakanin. Other suman latik do not last beyond a day or two. Not Manang Rosa’s. It can last for four days and are best without refrigeration! No wonder hundreds of these have reached Europe and the US as pasalubong.
While some originals fade away, unable to maintain their good taste, Manang Rosa’s suman latik continues to reign supreme. The suman is soft and flavorsome and the fine tender shreds of bukayo are cooked just right. Finally, it is the only suman latik around to remain fresh long enough for loved ones to savor across the seas… All because of simple woman’s sacred respect for quality.