At first reckoning, puto, a traditional Filipino rice cake, may not seem to fall into the category of fermented food. But a whiff of it or a bite reveals a very slight but pleasantly sour taste, with a subtle tinge of alcohol. After all, proper puto is made of fermented rice. It is “cooked” twice, first fireless by fermentation, then over fire as steaming.
Puto is one of about eighty kinds of Filipino rice cakes. While puto has slid into a supporting role over time as part of a morning or afternoon meal, it goes to the heart of ancient Filipino’s spiritual beliefs and practices: “Prehispanic gods were never satisfied by offerings without rice cakes,” wrote food scholar Felice P. Sta. Maria.
To this day, puto is cooked the old fashion way, though only in certain areas: Pasig, Biñan, Calasiao, Manapla, and Cagayan de Oro, among a few others. In these places, puto making is an important cottage industry, and the puto is named after the towns. Most puto are pristine white, except those from Biñan or Cagayan de Oro, which range from light brown to beige.
Making puto draws a family together with recipes being passed along or down to other kin. It is not unusual for families to be known for their puto variant. In the past, puto had to be made with year-old rice, known locally as laon. Rice was prepared by soaking it overnight and then grinding it in a gilingan (hand-operated table-top granite mill) to make a thick batter called galapong. Heaping tablespoons of rice were added one at a time along with a bit of water as necessary to ensure a certain consistency. As the mill ground the rice, batter seeped out from the side as an upright wooden extension rotated the upper stone. The batter collected in a canal around the mill; an indentation in the canal formed a spout so that the batter could be easily poured. The batter was then set aside (today it is refrigerated) to ferment, sometimes for three days.
In Cagayan de Oro, tuba (fermented coconut toddy) is added to hasten overnight fermentation. Then as now, the final step is to transfer the fermented batter to a banana leaf–lined container, which is covered and steamed until the batter becomes moist, plump, and fluffy. The cooking equipment used to be crafted of bamboo, though today the steamers are made of tin, aluminum, or stainless steel. The cover is conical so that the condensation flows down the sides to the cover’s rim and not on to the puto. The batter can also be decanted into small moulds; during the early twentieth century, tiny ceramic teacups were used. Other smaller banana leaf–lined containers that are about eight centimeters in diameter and can stand steamy heat are also used, such as for Negros Occidental’s puto manapla, traditionally served as a pair, one on top of the other, face to face. A large round of puto, about sixty centimeters across and four to five centimeters thick, is cut into parallelograms with a length of sewing thread to ensure the sides are straight. This also tests the puto’s doneness.
Puto can be subtly touched with anise or wood ash lye for flavor, and the banana leaf used while cooking gives the puto its delicate scent. Puto used to be widely hawked on the street, served with fresh grated coconut. Although a prominent part of the Filipino diet, rice is not native to the Philippines but was introduced in prehistoric times. Ethnic communities still plant between fifty and seventy types of rice, some of it for specific rituals. Rice remains a ritual principal and a staple food. Other than mother’s milk, an infant’s first food is am, the starch that surfaces on the water when rice first boils. As an adult, during main meals of the day, most Filipinos cannot or will not forego piping hot rice.
Rice is one of the first items brought into a new house, where henceforth the rice container must never be allowed to go empty, so as not to tempt fate. In farming communities, parents still plant a small plot with a special variety of rice in anticipation of the birth of a child, a patron saint’s feast day, the town fiesta, Christmas, and any such occasion deemed dear.
To this day, sacks of rice are brought to church during a rural Catholic feast—a gift to the Filipino Christian god, while puto, an offering to pre- Christian gods, grace life in the most commonly shared way.