I am almost embarrassed or chagrined to admit that I now often feel like a tourist in my own native cuisine. Ever since I started Market Manila, I have learned so much more about local ingredients and dishes, but the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes that I know so little indeed. What is obvious is that I have absolutely taken things food things for granted for the better part of 40 years. I have eaten hundreds of bibingkas, tons of puto, cuchinta and sapin-sapin, and yet I have never seen it made nor have I made them myself. When those terrific delicacies showed up on our table(s), they were always delivered with freshly grated coconut (yup, I could figure what that was, though if you asked me to pick out a coconut at just the right stage of maturity to make the perfect grate, I would have failed miserably), and latik. I always assumed latik was caramelized coconut meat with sugarâ€¦duh. I never had reason to wonder otherwise.
So the other day I was making a dessert (up next) that needed some latik and I decided to make some for myself. Most cookbooks I referred to just saidâ€¦make some latik for the topping of the dessert, as if everyone on the entire bloody planet knew how to do that. Duh, was I clueless or what? So I asked our cook, who hails from the midst of a vast coconut plantation, to teach me how to make some latik and she pulled out a little saucepan, put freshly squeezed coconut milk we made from freshly grated coconut from the market, about the milk from 2 coconuts, and turned the heat up to medium high. She kept stirring it for over 15, perhaps up to 20+ minutes as the milk turned into oil and suddenly, miraculously, these solids formed at the top of the fat and as soon as they turned a slightly golden color they were extracted and voila! â€“ LATIK. Yipes, that was simple. And no, I had never seen this done before.
I make know how to caramelize brown sugar with a blowtorch on a crÃ¨me brulee but this is the first latik I have ever made. And the process was fascinatingâ€¦it shows you just how many uses there are for the coconut tree and nut. It was like watching the raft floating in a bubbling broth that clears out the impurities from a consommÃ© properly. I am told that the resulting purish coconut oil is what one applies to your hair to get a nice sheen (eeew, talk about pungent oily smell and feel of Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion on your head). Or on the farm, one doesnâ€™t buy Wesson or Baguio oil, you just use this coconut oil from the coconut milk to fry your fish inâ€¦ The taste is nutty, sweet, coconutty and distinct. It has no added sugar. This differs from the latik that is more like a sweet sauce served with fried breadfruit back in my momâ€™s ancestral home town in Boholâ€¦I need to figure out how to make that version which is superb served with fried breadfruit!