The kakanin in all its mouth-watering forms are not just local Filipino delicacies meant to boast the versatility of the Filipinos’ staple food, rice or “kanin” (from which the term itself is derived). It is an essential slice of the Philippines’ rich food culture, a piece of the country’s history, and the Pinoy palate’s identity.
Hit the books and they will tell you that kakanin used to be made by Filipinos as a special offering to gods back in the day. There has also been a lingering belief that kakanin, sticky and sweet as they are, symbolizes the close relationship of Filipino families and friends.
These days, the term “kakanin” doesn’t necessarily refer to something made only with malagkit (sticky rice). Treats made with gata (coconut milk) and locally-grown root crops are now considered kakanin, too. Various methods of preparing it have also been discovered and introduced. Chefs love playing with the whole idea of the kakanin, using the concept and basic recipes for their next signature dish.
Know the different kinds of Filipino kakanin with this handy guide to the country’s native delicacies:
Sapin-sapin stands out as a vibrant and colorful kakanin. Coined from a Tagalog word that could mean “sheet” or “blanket”, this colorful Filipino dessert often has a layered appearance, with a distinct flavor for each “sapin”, like violet for ube (purple yam) or yellow for langka (jackfruit) and, sometimes, cheese. Galapong (ground glutinous rice), coconut milk, and sugar are the three main ingredients of sapin-sapin.
To achieve a clean look for this dish, see to it that the batter for each layer has been steamed and set before the next colored layer is poured into the mold. This sticky treat has a silky and sticky mouthfeel that is best enjoyed with latik (coconut curds) or grated coconut sprinkled on top.
This small orange cup-shaped kakanin is a form of steamed rice cake. Kutsinta is one of the many Filipino delicacies that requires minimum effort and is usually made with galapong, sugar, annatto powder (for coloring), and lye water. Characterized by a jelly-like texture, it is incredibly chewy. It is also served with grated coconut on top.
Another gelatinous local treat, pichi-pichi is one of the kinds of Filipino delicacies or kakanin that’s not actually made with rice. It is a translucent light yellow treat made with grated cassava, pandan water, and sugar. To make this dish, simply combine all the ingredients in a bowl, pour the mixture into a round pan, and steam for about 45 minutes until set. Once cool, scoop out portions from the pan and roll in grated coconut, although some others would prefer it coated with grated cheese.
Maja blanca is a lot like what its name suggests: unassuming and delicate. Just the same as pichi-pichi, it doesn’t contain rice, but a magkakanin (kakanin vendor) always includes dainty slices of maja blanca in her bilao of kakanin. This coconut pudding is often sold containing sweet corn kernels, but it was originally made with just coconut milk, corn starch, and sugar. Maja blanca is luscious enough to be eaten alone, though you can also sprinkle it with latik or grated cheese.
“Litaw”, the root word of palitaw, is a Filipino term for “emerge” or “to surface”. It’s a pretty strange word to associate with food, but not with this kakanin. Palitaw is a flat white oval rice cake and is pretty easy to make: Simply make a dough with rice flour and water, then divide it into small portions. Take a piece in your hands and form a tiny ball before pressing your palms together with the dough in between. The flattened dough is then placed in boiling water and will float or emerge from the depths of the pot to the surface once cooked, hence its name. Palitaw is rolled in grated coconut, sugar, and toasted sesame seeds before it is served.
Puto is probably the most common Filipino delicacies since you can find it pretty much everywhere. It comes in various types, depending on the region from where it originated and the way it is prepared, but the most common type of puto is reminiscent of a plain and mildly-sweet dense cupcake topped with a piece of cheese. It is believed that the roots of the Pinoy puto can be found in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where steamed rice cakes called “puttu” are made. Although it is widely enjoyed as a snack, puto is also usually paired with savory dishes such as pancit and especially with dinuguan.
The quintessential rice cake, bibingka is baked in clay pots lined with banana leaves. It is available in some Filipino restaurants and food shacks all year round but is most popular during Christmas time, when bibingka stalls would pop up near churches and is sold to churchgoers who have just attended simbang gabi (midnight mass). Traditionally made with galapong, coconut milk, margarine, and sugar, bibingka is soft and spongy. It is usually topped with salted egg (known as itlog na maalat or itlog na pula), cheese, and butter.
Puto bumbong is another Philippine delicacy that is a much sought-after Christmas treat. Often served side-by-side with bibingka, puto bumbong is long, thin, and rectangular in shape and purple in color due to its unique key ingredient: the pirurutong rice which is naturally violet. It is served with muscovado sugar and grated coconut, and is best paired with a hot drink made from tablea chocolate.
Biko is a chewy, gooey, and sweet rice cake. Most Filipino families have their own recipe for it and it is one of the easiest types of kakanin to cook if you’ve got an arm for mixing a thick, heavy, and sticky goop of malagkit, gata, and brown sugar in a large pan. It is served with latik sprinkled on top.
Suman is a steamed rice cake made with malagkit, coconut milk, and salt that’s kneaded and wrapped in leaves. But suman is actually more complex than that. Just as puto comes in different types, suman is one of the Filipino delicacies that have different versions, too, depending on which Philippine region you’re in. Its most popular varieties are suman sa lihiya (comes with a coconut sauce), suman sa ibus (wrapped in buri leaves), and suman sa antala (wrapped in wilted banana leaves). Suman has a subtle salty taste so dip it in sugar or pair it with sliced ripe mangoes for a touch of sweetness.