In Which Classic Bowls of Sweetness Provide Warmth in Cold Weather…

Rice, chocolate, cream...

Rice, chocolate, cream…

While Christmas 2013 was one of the warmest in recent memory here in the Philippines, the days leading up to the New Year were punctuated by chilly, balmy breezes blowing in from Siberia.  As a result, those who previously delighted in ice creams and all manner of chilled beverages now seek comfort from warmer fare.  Local gastronomy features numerous options to keep people’s bellies during cold spells and these range from hearty stews to robust whole-meal broths to both sweet and savory porridges.

Champorado, a sweet porridge featuring glutinous rice cooked in hot chocolate, is a perennial favorite among both children and adults.  A spin-off on Mexican champurrado (an atole or cornmeal gruel flavored with chocolate and cinnamon), it is a popular breakfast choice on stormy days or on days when the temperature outside demands that you throw on a sweater when you go out.  While some households prefer to make it from scratch, commercially-prepared mixes for champorado are none too shabby and are quite delicious.  A drizzle of milk or cream finishes this bowl of sweetness nicely, though the more adventurous serve crunchy deep-fried dried anchovies (dilis or ikan bilis) on top to add a salty contrast.  Don’t turn your nose up at this combination; it’s really delightful in its oddness.

Other sweet rice porridges fall under the category known as ginataan – which, by the name alone, means that the rice was cooked in coconut milk (gata).  Ginataang mais is, by far, the bowl that pleases the public the most: a rich, gooey, coconut-infused bowl of rice mixed with sweetcorn kernels.

Another popular take on the ginataan format is ginataang monggo which swaps out the sweetcorn in favor of toasted red mung [adzuki] beans.  Known in Central Luzon, specifically in Pampanga, as lelut balatong (literally: “bean gruel”), it has a deliciously nutty flavor and a smoky fragrance.  While this dish is considered a popular merienda [afternoon tea] snack in other parts of the Philippines, it is traditionally served at to godparents at christenings in Pampanga as both a thank-you gesture and in order to ensure a sweet, prosperous life for the newly-baptized infant.

Assorted delights in coconut cream

Assorted delights in coconut cream

Not all desserts under the ginataan category are gruels or porridges, though.  Possibly the most popular one of all is actually a Filipino version of what is known in Chinese cuisine as a tong sui, or a sweet dessert soup: ginataang halo-halo.

This dish is known by several names depending on which part of the country it has been prepared in.  In the Waray provinces of the Visayas region (Samar and Leyte), it is called binignit; Cebuanos refer to it as tinunuan and the Hiligaynon-speaking folks of Iloilo and Bacolod call it ginat-an.  The Chavacanos, the Spanish mulattoes of the provinces of Cavite and Zamboanga, refer to it as alfajor – possibly comparing the sticky, glutinous nature of the dish with the chewy nougat/caramel hybrid of the same name.  Regardless of what name it goes by, its substance and manner of preparation are virtually the same throughout the archipelago:

The meat of a mature coconut is grated and the “thick” milk is extracted. Two cups of water are added to the grated coconut and a second extraction is made. This becomes the “thin” milk. This “thin” coconut milk extract is added to cubed kamote (sweet potato), gabi (taro) and ube (purple yam), sliced ripe sabá (plantain) and langka (jack fruit), and tapioca pearls. Sometimes, young coconut meat strips are also added. The mixture is brought to a boil; being stirred occasionally until done. Just before removal from the flame, the “thick” coconut milk is added.

The people of the neighbouring island of Leyte usually include landang (palm flour jelly balls), jackfruit, and anise, and thicken it with milled glutinous rice. The vegetables and the pearl sago are cooked in a mixture of water, coconut milk and landang, and sweetened by muscovado or brown sugar.

Those of us who live in the Tagalog-speaking provinces of Luzon call it ginataang bilo-bilo when small balls of glutinous rice dough (think mochi pearls – only slightly bigger) are added to the mix.

Regardless of what’s in your bowl, however, the main point of these dishes is to bring soothing warmth and welcome comfort to a people chilled by northeastern winds.  🙂