Rice is almost sacramental to Filipinos: not only do we eat it with almost every meal, we've found ways to manipulate the grain into even more delicious forms. And because of this, we’ve managed to work the food even deeper into our traditions, memories, and celebrations. To wit: puto (rice cakes).
Most of us grew up with puto one way or another: it makes an appearance at fiestas (eaten with dinuguan, or by itself), during Christmas; it's even a constant presence at most notable bakeshops. How could it be otherwise? With Filipinos’ attachment to rice, how could rice cakes be far behind?
[Also check out how Dinuguan is prepared throughout the Philippines.]
Endless Varieties of Puto
The settlements around the central rice-growing plain of Luzon—notably Bulacan and Pampanga—have made the most out of the abundance of rice in the Philippines. Almost every town has its own variety of puto, some more famous than others.
Some are flavored with anise, others simply topped with cheese. Some are simply made with galapong (rice flour), while others use flour from more exotic sources. Pururutong, for example, produces a brownish purple flour that is used to make the ube-colored puto bumbong, beloved of Christmas bazaars. (More modern varieties leave out the pururutong altogether, settling for regular rice flour and food coloring).
"Puto comes white and brown, beige and lavender; large and small, plain and filled," writes the late Doreen Fernandez in her Filipino food masterwork, Palayok. "In Meycauayan, Bulacan, the egg-filled puto is called putong lalake, the meat-filled putong babae, and the cheese-filled putong bakla."
To list all the types of puto found in the Philippines would take a whole book; what follows is a list of some of the more popular puto varieties (feel free to boast about your own town's take on puto in the comments section).
Puto Biñan. Made with 100-percent rice flour, the bready-textured puto Biñan originates from the eponymous city in Laguna. Puto Biñan is cooked in large, flat, round cakes, then topped with cheese. The puto is then sliced into diamond shapes. The tart cheese contrasts with the carb-loaded sweetness of the puto itself.
Puto bumbong. The purple-fleshed puto bumbong is a popular post-Simbang Gabi snack in the Philippines. The color comes from the use of pururutong rice flour; the batter is cooked in a bamboo tube, then served with muscovado sugar, butter, and shredded coconut. A Pampanga variant, putong sulot, uses plain white glutinous rice, but is cooked the same way.
Puto Calasiao. This tiny sweet puto originates from the town of Calasiao in Pangasinan, whose townfolk make both puto and kutsinta in tiny bite-size pieces. These puto are chewier, perhaps borne out of the rice batter's fermentation prior to cooking.
Puto maya. This variety of puto uses whole malagkit grains, as opposed to rice flour or galapong; the malagkit is stewed in coconut cream, steamed then placed on banana leaves in individual servings. A puto maya snack is traditionally accompanied by fresh mango.
Puto Manapla. Originating from the town of Manapla, in Negros Occidental, this kind of puto is cooked cradled in banana leaves. Its texture is smooth and soft, and is less sweet than its sugary counterparts. Puto Manapla is best eaten warm with a pat of melting butter and grated cheese on top.
[Also check out another delectable Pinoy favorite: Brazo de Mercedes!]
So intense is the devotion to puto in some towns that certain days are set aside to honor the beloved rice cake.
"Pistang Puto" in San Miguel, Bulacan and the "Puto Festival" in Calasiao, Pangasinan both take place around December. "On Pistang Puto day, every house is an open house," writes Gilda Cordero-Fernando in her book Philippine Food and Life. "Anyone can go up and taste one's signature rice cake and judge who in town makes the best."
The Filipino Christmas season is universally associated with puto, particularly puto bumbong, sold alongside bibingka for post-dawn Mass-goers. In Pampanga, Pasko simply isn't the same without the aforementioned putong sulot and putong lusong.
In all honesty, though, do you really need a special occasion to pick up a pack of puto? Puto, after all, is part of our cultural identity: you need no excuse to indulge in the stuff, holiday or not.