With its many variants – perhaps as many as there are provinces in the Philippines – the rice cake, generically called suman, could be our de facto national kakanin or snack. Depending on its place of origin, suman also goes by the name budbod, ibos, moron, sayungsong, dodol, among others. My all-time favorite, however, and not just because I come from Catanduanes in Bicol, is the delicacy we call latik.
By itself, this steamed rice cake, with virtually nothing but little salt added to glutinous rice, may not look particularly enticing. The secret of making good latik is the addition of juice extracted from malunggay (moringa oleifera) leaves to enhance its flavor and nutritional value.
It looks plain at first blush, but it takes on a different character when ‘bathed’ with the rich white syrup locally called bañar (Spanish word meaning ‘to bathe’ or ‘to pour syrup on’). The bañar is a mix of coconut milk, just enough water, and sugar brought to a long boil (adding anise seeds for flavoring is optional) until it reaches the desired consistency. The result of this pairing is a delightfully creamy treat. If you’ve heard of that expression about food being so good it makes you forget your name, then think Catandungan latik. As locals would say, silam na sana, which roughly translates to “it’s so yummy, nothing compares!”
Because making latik is quite laborious (steaming the rice cakes and preparing the bañar take hours), the delicacy is not everyday fare*, but is often served on special occasions, notably during town fiestas. In most houses, latik is served to guests for breakfast and as dessert after a hearty lunch, then stretches on to become the main afternoon snack, that is, if it’s not finished off earlier.
Bicolano cuisine has earned its place in the culinary map through its hot and spicy numbers including laing, pinangat, and Bicol Express. Not too many, however, are familiar with the other side of the Bicolano palate. And that’s a real shame. Because when it’s hot, oragon food is very good. But when it takes a saccharine turn – especially for people with a sweet tooth like me – it is even better.
(*Some enterprising kababayans have cashed in on this sweet treat and latik vendors can now be found in the Virac market on any given day. Arguably, the best latik are those by Mr. Simplicio “Impling” Mendoza, which are sold at the Virac airport and RSL bus terminal.)