The bundle of tupig was thrust in my face by the street vendor. Tupig (say “too-pig”) are long sticky rice logs wrapped and cooked in banana leaves. The aroma of sweet rice mingled with the burnt banana wrapper followed me as the vendor pleaded in Tagalog “Mura lang po, bili na po kayo !”(It’s very cheap, please buy it.)
Tupig is a Filipino log-shaped rice cake made of coconut, sugar, sticky rice grains soaked overnight, molasses and rice flour. Mixed and mashed together, the uncooked tupig looks like a thickened porridge.
As we stood there in the town of Calasiao, Pangasinan (a province north of Manila), I didn’t have the heart to haggle with this young peddler, who was much younger than my own sons, over tupig, which only cost an equivalent of $2 for a bundle of 30 to 40 pieces. They were street food, but I loved them as a snack, when I was growing up. Somebody was always buying them or giving it to our family. There was always a big platter of tupig for merienda at our home. Merienda (say ‘me-ry-yen-dah’ ) is the afternoon snack in between lunch and dinner. It is always a delish prelude to the big family meal at the end of the day.
When I unwrapped the burnt banana leaves that encased the tupig, they were exactly as I remembered them. These tupig logs were sweet and gooey, and were perfect with a cup of warm ginger tea, the Filipino Salabat.
As soon as I returned back to the States, I got busy in my kitchen replicating the tupig. I interviewed Amy Besa, author of the cookbook “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” who witnessed tupig cooked the original way in a remote province while researching for her cookbook. Amy said, “The traditional way to cook tupig in the Philippines is to dig a hole in the ground, put the uncooked banana wrapped tupig in the hole. Then, hot coals are placed over them and the tupig is allowed to slow cook for a few hours “.
In my USA backyard, I carefully and quickly wrapped the sticky rice concotion in banana leaves, and tried to cook them on the outdoor grill for thirty minutes. It was an awesome success! What a delightful treat it turned out to be.
Once I took the burnt banana leaf-wrapped tupig out of the grill, the sweet char-grilled aroma was uniquely inviting and filled our backyard. The scent brought me right back to my Filipino roots, when we cooked different rice cakes in banana leaves, outdoors – either kindled by firewood or by hot burning coals.
At the urging of Amy, I retrieved a heritage essay on the presence of tupig at the “Filipino Christmas Table”, in an excerpt here by the late Professor Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, the pioneer in Philippine food writing:
In Laoag, Ilocos Norte, the traditional delicacy is “tupig.” Writer Benjamin Pascual, for the Sunday Times Magazine, remembers the whole town would prepare it. Preparations would start before daybreak on December 24 and children would wake up to the sound of the townswomen pulverizing the ‘malagkit’ (sticky rice grains) — the rhythmic thuds of thousands of wooden pestles against thousands of mortars in the town. This variety of puto (rice cake) was flavored with molasses, which had been stored in cans long before the holiday season.
The next step was the grating of coconut to be mixed with the dough and here again the children involved themselves, riding the coconut graters carved from tree trunks and shaped like horses, dogs or even alligators. The coconut-mixed dough was next wrapped in layers of dark green, mature banana leaves, and cooked by burying them in a huge mound of burning rice chaff, a community oven for several neighbors. The virtue of rice chaff is that it does not burst into flames but smolders in a leisurely way, such that the tupig bakes unhurriedly and evenly as in an oven. (from ‘Puto-Bumbong, Bibingka, Salabat: The Filipino Christmas Table’, SARAP, Essays on Philippine Food: Doreen G. Fernandez and Edilberto N. Alegre, 1988)
The memories of the burnt banana leaves came back to me and reminded me of Christmases as a child. Once cooked and grilled, the sticky tupig logs were splendid, its thick rice grainy texture was filling, and the sweetness of the molasses in burnt coconut cream was irresistible. What a great way to start our holiday season!
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The “tupig” is a sticky rice log that was favorite snack for me, since childhood. It originated in the northern provinces of the Philippines. I grew up in a small town north of Manila close to these regions. The common ingredients of coconut, rice, sugar and molasses wrapped in banana leaves were all part of the agricultural bounty found in these provinces. Here in my American kitchen, I did a shortcut to cook tupig by char-grilling it outdoors. This is an original recipe I formulated. It makes 18 to 24 pieces.
- sticky rice or sweet rice or 'Filipino malagkit rice' - 1 cup, soaked in water overnight (also called 'sweet rice', from Asian markets)
- coconut cream - 1 can ( 8 ounces)
- frozen coconut meat - 1 package ( 8 ounces) must say 'mature coconut', from Asian markets in frozen aisle
- granulated sugar - 1/2 cup
- molasses - 1/8 cup
- rice flour - 1/4 cup (from Asian markets)
- banana leaves - 18 to 24 pieces cut in 8 x 8 inch pieces (from Asian markets, freezer aisle)
- The night before, place uncooked sticky rice grains in a bowl. Place enough water to cover the grains. Cover and soak overnight.
- The next day, drain the liquid from the rice. Process the wet rice grains in a food processor or blender. Your goal should be to process the rice till you get a fine, almost powder like, coarse mixture. This is the base of your rice cakes recipe. This processed rice is called “galapong” (say ‘gah-lah-pong’). Set aside while you prepare the coconut milk.
- In a small saucepan, over medium high heat, place the canned coconut milk. Heat the coconut milk till it is almost burnt, but do not allow fire to get too high or the coconut milk will curdle. Stir so the bottom does not stick. You want the coconut milk to have a toasted-like aroma and flavor. This should take 5 to 6 minutes.
- Then remove the coconut milk from fire. Mix together the galapong, coconut milk, sugar, rice flour and molasses. Blend well.
- Once mixed, get ready to wrap the rice mixture in banana leaves.
- Allow the banana leaves to thaw at room temperature. Cut in square sizes measuring approximately 8 x 8 inches. Place 2 tablespoons in the center of the banana leaf. Arrange like a long, thin log about 5 inches.
- Wrap the banana leaves like a burrito. Seal the sides by tucking inside the leaves
- Cook the rice cake logs on an outdoor grill for 30 minutes. Rotate the rice logs so that they cook evenly. The banana leaves may look burned, but it’s just the leaves. Inside, the rice cakes will take a few minutes to cook .