Ensaymada, an airy bread treat, can take on a variety of different flavors. // © 2017 iStock
Feature image (above): Trying out these desserts is a must while visiting the Philippines. // © 2017 iStock
Many associate Filipino cuisine with fast food and fried chicken chains. Diligent foodies, on the other hand, may have already stumbled upon upscale restaurants that put a twist on traditional Filipino favorites or food trucks that fuse the country’s flavors into burritos or tacos.
For the most part, though, the country’s traditional dishes have mostly been left untouched — including the delicious desserts that have seemingly been kept a secret from those not in the know.
To truly unlock this secret, a trip to the Philippines is a must. Not only will these desserts be easy to find, but foodies can also be sure they’re eating the best of the best.
The choices are endless, but avoid getting overwhelmed with this shortlist of must-try desserts.
Bibingka is Christmas time favorite that can be tedious to make. The ingredients are simple, only consisting of rice flour and water or coconut water for a sweeter taste. Traditionally, the mixture is loaded into a banana leaf-lined terra-cotta container that’s heated over hot coals.
While preparing the dessert, it is important that the banana leaf is properly secured and covers the whole inside of the pan. Also, when the mixture is poured in, ensure that none of it ends up on the actual terra-cotta container. The mixture is then covered with another banana leaf and more coals, and the end result is a sweet, spongy cake with a hint of banana-leaf flavor.
Modern methods of making this treat include simply lining up cake pans with coconut leaves and baking them. However, one thing that stays consistent is topping the treats with cheese, sugar, grated coconut or even salted duck eggs.
This cake is made from the cassava root which, if not handled correctly, can kill a person due to its cyanide content. The root usually goes through some sort of processing phase to drain all of the poison out before it can be safe for consumption.
In this case, the cassava is dried and grated before being put into a mixture of coconut milk, evaporated milk, butter, sugar and grated coconut. After baking, another mixture of eggs, coconut milk and evaporated milk are spread thinly on top and baked until golden brown, making a crispy crust atop the creamy cake.
This treat was brought to the Philippines by the Spanish during their rule of the country, and it’s been a staple Filipino dessert ever since. The usual ingredients to make the airy-bread base include sugar, eggs, flour and water, and it is then placed in a lined mold and baked.
Once cooled, the ensaymada is usually topped with either cheese or sugar before being individually wrapped. Modern twists include red-velvet or Oreo-cookie-flavored takes on the bread, while nontraditional toppings might include cookie butter or maple-bacon frosting.
Perhaps the most recognizable Filipino dessert, this shaved ice concoction can be customized depending on what sort of toppings one desires. The ingredients that stay consistent with each halo-halo is the shaved ice base, scoop of ube (purple yam) ice cream and generous drizzle of condensed milk.
From there, a variety of toppings can be piled on, including sugar palm fruit (kaong), jellied coconut water (nata de coco), boiled kidney beans and pounded crushed young rice (pinipig). All in all, toppings might as well include everything but the kitchen sink.
Just like Bibingka, Puto Bumbong is also usually served during the Christmas season. This dish is made from a mixture of wild purple rice called pirurutong and regular sticky rice. It takes three days to make, beginning with soaking the rice mixture overnight before grinding it up. It is then placed in a sack so the excess water can be drained out, before being cooked in a special bamboo steamer. While still warm, the puto bumbong is slathered with butter and topped with grated coconut and brown sugar. The end results make the three-day process worth it.
The simple variation of suman is a mixture of glutinous rice and coconut milk, which is put inside a banana leaf and steamed. Many unwrap the dessert and place it on a plate before adding a sprinkle of sugar, or just peel the leaf back as if eating a banana and eat it as so. Depending on which region of the Philippines one visits or even who is making it, suman can take on a multitude of variations. Some may add ube or cassava into the mixture while others may use a different leaf to wrap it in, such as tagbak leaves, a plant that can add a minty flavor to the dessert.