When you drive up to Northern Cebu on the eastern coast of the island, you will pass by some 15-20 roadside vendors in Catmon selling bibingka. There seems to be no visible differentiation between the stalls, that stand side by side, and the prices are very competitive. We often stop here, a habit on trips up North, and consume way too many freshly cooked bibingka, at a few pesos a piece. I wrote about them in 2008 here, and again during our relief operations after Typhoon Haiyan here.
So when we passed this isolated little bibingka stall in the hills above Catmon, where just a few motorcycle drivers and passengers pass by, and maybe a vehicle or two every half hour, we decided to stop and see what the bibingka tasted like. It was SUPERB! Made only with rice, water, sugar and coconut meat/milk, this simple, simple cake was sublime. It definitely tasted better than the sum of its parts, and perhaps because it was so isolated, so freshly cooked and so earnestly offered up, I think it beat the many vendors on the main road in Catmon by a mile.
Cooked in the simplest of terra cotta containers (it look like the underdish of a plant pot) over coconut husk embers and topped with a thin piece of galvanized steel with coconut embers atop it, the makeshift ovens made bibingka one at a time, and depending on the heat, to mixed results of perfectly caramelized to slightly burned.
The dried coconut husk is used as fuel, instead of charcoal that would cost more and apparently not burn as hot.
The lady operating this stall only did it for 1-2 hours a day, as she had to drop off and pick up her kids at school down near the main road. We were lucky to catch her open with freshly cooked bibingka, and after discussing her techniques for a few minutes, asked if she was willing to come to Cebu for a day trip to teach us how to make bibingka her way. She agreed and we had those lessons the day after our trip to the Catmon hills.
We used a gas oven, charcoal and a charcoal oven and believe it or not, got our best results from the charcoal oven, where we could cook a dozen or so at a time, and they emerged with that characteristic slightly charred surface and springy interior crumb. We are still perfecting the recipe to our uses and plan to sell Catmon style bibingka at a new retail shop we have near the Mactan airport. I offered the lady a space at our new “strip mall” pasalubong center set-up, but she was concerned about life in the big city, and so we may do it for her instead…
I think this type of bibingka is a taste acquired early in one’s lifetime, as its simplicity might not impress folks used to more tasty and substantial ingredients like the inclusion of eggs, milk, salted eggs, cheese, etc. But sometimes, it is the simplest of concoctions that are the hardest to perfect. Oh, by the way, the exact same batter steamed instead of baked in an oven also tasted terrific!