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Bibingka, puto bumbong and simbang gabi

The historic Guadalupe Church in Makati is packed full with people spilling outside for the traditional Simbang Gabi
The historic Guadalupe Church in Makati is packed full with people spilling outside for the traditional Simbang Gabi

This is the first Christmas feature for 2008. The other three are Bright and colorful parols lighting the holidays, Divisoria Christmas shopping rush and Cordova pabuto.

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.

Preparing the bibingka  just outside the church
Preparing the bibingka just outside the church

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.

A bibingka being cooked and ready for selling as the sugar gets to caramelize and darken
A bibingka being cooked and ready for selling as the top has turned golden brown

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.

Puto bumbong steamer at the gates of the church
Puto bumbong steamer at the gates of the church

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.

A wisp of vapor coming out from the traditional puto bumbong steamer
A wisp of vapor coming out from the traditional puto bumbong steamer

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.

7 thoughts on “ Bibingka, puto bumbong and simbang gabi

  1. gonli

    Estan, nice shots as usual. You have shown a tradition in our country that is worth keeping. Simbang gabi or misa de gallo was started during the Spanish era by the friars to “influence” their flock to still hear mass before going to the rice fields and work all day. What started as a force action became a tradition in our country and now even in the rest of the world. Merry Christmas, Estan! A prosperous new year ahead! Ginutom ako sa succeeding pix. hehehehe!!!

  2. i just attended the simbang gabi last night in las pinas. i believe that this is something big as even in mindanao you’ll notice that people really flock simbang gabi. i like the last photo and its subject too.

  3. gonli, i had bibingka and puto bumbong yesterday even if I didn’t go to the simbang gabi. just delicious. merry xmas too 🙂

    dong, well, as long as their are catholics in the area, it is sure to have the simbang gabi 🙂

  4. ay! namiss ko ito! really no kidding!! Sometimes.. it’s my encouragement to wake up early for simbang gabi…hehe. But really if it weren’t from these goody goods, simbang gabi isn’t complete at all. The way they are prepared also adds to the ambiance … your pictures and the way you describe the delicacies brings warmth and smile to my face ….ugh! add craving to that !

    salamat at happy new year!

  5. Ben

    Talk about Kakaninn bibingka, puto bumbong etc..etc.. I found this guy who makes all these Kakanin in LA. He only caters and makes evrything fresh. He grinds his own galapong and even grows his own bamaboo for puto bumbong. Man his stuff are good. if you need to see a picture of his bilao with kakanin, Ican send it. I think his logo is Kakanin sa bahay Kubo. I made some taste test and got some kakanin from Seafood City and man it was not that great compared to what he made. Plus his price is very reasonable. he just works on small clients and does not want to mass produce. he said it can get sloppy. he preffers the true blue Pinoy style of preparing kakanin.

  6. hello ems, thanx for the comment. wala bang simbang gabi diyan sa area mo? I’ve seen in TV that there are simbang gabi held in places where there are sizable Pinoy communities.

    Ben, that’s a very interesting comment. he should be featured! I’ll get in touch with you for that photo 🙂

  7. There is simbang gabi here but it’s done around 7pm in the evening and there were no bibingka and puto bumbong waiting outside after the mass. It’s terribly cold to go out during the night here and more so going out in the wee hours of the morning. Overnight temperatures go as low as -20C. If one does not have a car for transportation and will rely on some amount of walking to the church, they will be exposed too long to cold. Selling those delicacies outside is really out of the question …. unfortunately.

    Good thing I have those memories of our simbang gabi tucked in my mind and your pictures that envokes those memories out. I hope someday my two children will experience the simbang gabi.

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