Screech to a halt! Turn the car around! I spotted a bibingka (puto, to non-Cebuanos) vendor streetside putting in a new batch of bibingka/puto in molds into her large makeshift wood fired steamer! Folks who ride with me in a car these days do so at their own peril, as I am notorious for stopping/photographing/buying food or produce. I had passed this particular area on Veterans Drive in Lahug (near the small street market) HUNDREDS of times in the past 5 years as it leads up to where I stay when I am in Cebu… but I have never noticed this puto seller before… It always amazes me what you find when you simply open your eyes.
Just a few weeks ago, Mrs. MM attended a family reunion in Cebu where over 300+ relatives showed up. And one of the topics of conversation was the puto or bibingka that a grandmother used to serve to guests from near or far. They all recalled it as having unusual purple dots sprinkled onto the off white rice cakes. I vaguely knew what they were referring to, but because my own grandmother was not terribly fond of sweets, we didn’t have the same puto during our summer visits to lolo and lola.
I also wondered out loud if the little dots might not be some sort of flavoring, such as ube or something else, but everyone seemed to think they were just plain food color, and purely for decorative purposes. So when I spotted this bingka or puto vendor this morning, I decided to stop and find out more. These “binkang pinalutaw” are simple rice cakes (ground regular rice, not glutinous rice), made with freshly squeezed coconut milk and a touch of sugar. They seem denser than Manila puto, and sit like a rock in your stomach. Made in small ensaimada or mamon molds lined with young banana leaves, they are a hearty merienda or snack. The rice is fresh, with no hint of fermentation at all, the sweetness is pleasant but not cloying, and it keeps for a day or two without refrigeration. They made sure I knew that they didn’t include the grated coconut in the mixture, just the milk, as the former tended to result in faster fermentation of the finished product. And yes, the little dots of purple are simply for decoration… they do nothing for the flavor. And these days, they also mix a lot of food coloring into the basic rice mixture to create the bright purple versions they were cooking when I happened to pass by.
Lani and Cathy, who have been manning this stall for years, grind up the rice, add coconut milk (no solids) and sugar fill banana leaf lined molds that are then placed in a huge steamer with conical lid. They tend a wood fire (and occasionally throw in some coconut shells as well) to steam up in about 15 minutes a batch of roughly 18+ putos. They sell these for PHP6 each, or 17 for HP100. Imagine? For less than the cost of a Starbucks frapuccino, we were able to have a morning snack for 17 people??? Now that is what I call a good deal! And while I just stumbled upon this particular vendor, I know there are hundreds of similar folks who have a food specialty, make it day in and day out, make do with makeshift and worn equipment, and still manage to turn out such simple and yet utterly satisfying delicacies… life is indeed better than you think if you can appreciate something as simple as this binkang pinalutaw, cooked roadside in Cebu…