16 December is the start of the nine day dawn novena masses in anticipation of Christmas Day. In the Visayas and Mindanao, it is called the misa de gallo, or the “at the cock’s crow mass” and in the Tagalog region, Simbang Gabi. In Catholic churches across the country, parishioners are overflowing out of the portals as the faithful religiously follow this well cherished tradition.
The historic Guadalupe Church in Makati City used to be the convent of the Augustinians but after World War II, it was burned and in ruins. Rebuilt in it’s present state, it is just a short ride from where I’m residing and provides a beautiful backdrop for the Simbang Gabi.
Speak of Simbang Gabi and one thing comes to mind: FOOD of which the bibingka (rice cake) and puto bumbong are two popular fares associated with this religious activity, or with Christmas, even if its now available all year round. These are usually found just outside the church gates and after mass, people stop to buy. However, while these two are true for those living in Metro Manila and probably in the Tagalog region, it is not traditional in my home province of Cebu.
Both are made from ground rice flour while the puto bumbong is made from sticky rice or malagkit, just like most rice cakes. Unlike the one that I’m familiar in my hometown, the bibingka is not steamed but cooked over and under hot coals. Strips of salted egg, cheese and in some cases, pieces of ham are placed into the mixture and as it gets to cook for a few minutes and the top starts to get firm, a layer of brown sugar is added. Once cooked, a spoonful of margarine and freshly grated coconut meat on top completes the bibingka.
To get that very fluffy and soft bibingka, 100% rice flour should be used coupled with optimal cooking time. Some blend ordinary flour into it and that will give you a harder rice cake.
The first time I tasted puto bumbong was way back in college in Mandaluyong. It was more out of curiousity that I tried it and got fascinated with the strange contraption that is used in cooking. At the heart is the steamer, placed over hot coals on a clay stove. Two or three openings at the top serve as receptacles for the bamboo tube that holds the colored rice flour mixture. A piece of cloth is then wrapped around that protects the hand’s surface when it is handled.
I’m not really sure why the puto bumbong is colored violet but it’s always colored that way. After a few minutes in the steamer, the bamboo tube is retrieved, the contents, now expanded and sticky, is set on a piece of banana leaf. Margarine is then rubbed, sugar added and freshly grated white coconut meat is placed on top before the leaf is folded and packed.
These two local fares are best eaten while still hot. The fluffy, soft and semi-sweet taste of the bibingka coupled with the sugary crunch layer contrasts well with the salted duck’s egg and cheese while the grated coconut provide a textural surprise. The puto bumbong’s almost bland taste, on the other hand, carries well the sugar, margarine and grated coconut meat.