It’s late October and many of my friends are buying their fake blood and zombie costumes and pulling out their Michael Jackson’s Thriller long-format tracks. Oh, and of course, getting ready for the World Series. (sigh.)
But here in the Philippines, we’re already looking forward to Christmas. Soon as one of the so-called -BER months (SeptemBER, OctoBER…) takes a turn on the calendar, Filipinos dust off their parol, traditional star-shaped Christmas lanterns made of bamboo and colorful paper or capiz shell. A cartoon Pasko countdown finishes the tv evening news broadcast – seventy days na lang! In the malls, the soundtracks change from pop hits like Gangam Style to classic carols like Baby, It’s Cold Outside. Ironic, of course, because it doesn’t get colder than the high 70s in Manila.
Here, unlike at home in the States, it’s not about finding the best Black Friday deals (although I am sad I will miss Thanksgiving and I definitely do NOT LIKE how much Black Friday is now overshadowing that holiday, too). Seems more and more that December is just another reason to go berzerk on consumerism. In the Philippines, Christmas is about the Church, it’s about community, it’s about the family being together and enjoying a good meal and each others’ company. While gifts are exchanged, it’s not seen as compulsory and is much, much less the focus of the holiday than in the States. And if you come over on Christmas with a casserole of Filipino spaghetti, masaya rin ‘yan. (It’s all good.)
My first research outing for my Filipino street food chapter was to visit San Felipe Neri Church in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila. Late at night, the wall that encloses the church and its square becomes alive with bibingka and puto bumbong merchants. MMMMM. My aunt said the foods traditionally only sold during Christmas time are so popular in the community that the street food vendors sell it all year long. Eh, why not?
Bibingka is a rice cake cooked in banana leaves, and consists of galapong (milled glutinous sweet rice dough), coconut milk, margarine, and sugar. The galapong, the base for many Filipino rice desserts, can be made by hand, or can be purchased in a wet market or palengke, if you’re here in the Philippines. Glutinous rice flour is also used as a substitute, and that can easily be found in Asian markets abroad (see this recipe by one of my fave Filipino food bloggers, Jun Belen). Some of the vendors take a short cut and use regular wheat flour. Still delicious, but the taste is more like a pound cake than bibingka and its texture is too smooth, IMHO.
To take this already-amazing dessert to another level, strips of cheese or salted eggs can be added to the batter, too, just before adding a second banana leaf to the top of the cake batter and covering it with heated coals. These special bibingka are a little more expensive, but well worth it…. The clay ovens bake the bibingka evenly from top and the bottom.
And, here’s the finished product, wrapped in banana leaves, then plastic wrap, then in pages ripped out from the phone book. Those Filipinos, so resourceful! The cakes are really hot to start with, but will be perfect by the time you walk home. The vendor will include a baggie of grated coconut. Oh, put that all over the cake, by all means. Take a bite of that mildly sweet cake, slightly smoky from the coals and burnt banana leaves, and a nip of the creamy saltyness of the cheese along with the gritty coconut. It’s going to be a very, very Merry Christmas, indeed.