It’s a little thing, but holding a bag of sticky rice flour in my hands after a trip to an Asian grocery store (or these days, ordering online) just makes me feel pretty liberated. Sometimes, it’s because I want to congratulate myself for finally getting out of bed and physically going someplace - it’s happened a few times since the lockdown, but also lots of other times in the past.
My strongest sense of accomplishment comes from knowing I could make and enjoy a plate of palitaw - sticky coconut-and-sesame coated rice cakes - within the next couple of days. But even with all that excitement, strangely I still feel like an hour is a lot to set aside, just to make rice cakes from scratch. Plus, there would be dishes, and it just isn’t the same eating them alone.
Photo by FilipinoTownHall.com
Over time, though, I came to genuinely enjoy making them. I’d call a friend to catch up, or listen to a playlist I liked while rolling sticky balls of dough. If I needed a night to vent and dance in the kitchen, or be still with a pot of water quietly bubbling away, making palitaw was good for that too.
And in a way, I later realized, all those batches of palitaw were little acts of reclaiming my Filipina identity - an always-open window into learning more about the Philippines and its food culture, from my apartment in Toronto.
Rice, of course, is central to the everyday diet of most of the Philippines’ ethnolinguistic groups. Glutinous or sticky rice, while not consumed in as much quantity as regular long and short grain varieties, are predominantly used in “kakanin” - the umbrella term for rice cakes, whether they are steamed, boiled, wrapped with leaves and grilled over coals, or baked in a traditional or modern oven. (I particularly like this graphic with 15 of the country’s most popular kakanin - makes me miss them every time!)
Photo by Clickthecity.com
To me, kakanin are all about the toppings, and while I long for freshly grated coconut, the truth is that for palitaw, unsweetened shredded coconut from the baking aisle works just fine, mixed with sugar and toasted sesame seeds.
To make palitaw, all you need is sticky rice flour and enough water to make a smooth dough. With about half an hour of rolling and flattening the balls of dough, 2-3 minutes each to cook them in boiling water, and a generous coating of the coconut-sugar-sesame mix…my day gets lifted, guaranteed.
In Tagalog, the word “palitaw” itself means “to rise”. Sometimes, as I drop the sticky dough into the water, I like to think of them as “the ones that rise” - like they were plants or people who have a magical determination to succeed. They’re always delicious. I even got to pre-rolling and freezing them, so they’d be ready to boil, and having the coconut topping pre-mixed in a jar.
As an adult, I tend to eat much less rice than I used to, growing up in a Filipino household where breakfast, lunch and dinner always came with mounds of steamed white rice. And while it will never be absent from my diet, I think the real appeal of making kakanin is that it connects me with the culture of making simple, traditional rice-based delicacies at home - using the same basic recipe and method of preparation, carried through many generations and over to the many places where people from the Philippines have settled.
Kakanin are more than just a snack to me - they’re a way to say I’m here, and that I want to share the foods that nourish me physically and spiritually with the people around me.
My kakanin cravings become extra real as the holidays approach, and while I don't put up Christmas decorations in September (anymore), admittedly I start thinking about different kinds of kakanin I want to eat: the classic baked bibingka, steamed puto bumbong, colourful sapin-sapin, homey palitaw. I can hear the shuffle of people leaving the church after midnight mass, and smell the scent of burnt coconut husks and strong salabat (ginger tea) wafting in the air.
I remember learning how to make palitaw when I was 9, back in my fourth grade home economics class. Then, as now, I’m a little mindblown by how easy it is to make, and this year I've found new ways to enjoy them. I've dropped off frozen palitaw on a friend's porch, taught my non-Filipino roommates how to make them, and even chatted with university students about how making kakanin can be a form of personal wellness - something I am always working towards.
Whether you make them by yourself or with others, I hope you're encouraged to try it! Find the recipe I use below, adapted from a book called "Rice to the Occasion" by Chef Tatung Sarthou (who also hosts one of my favourite cooking shows on YouTube).
Whatever happens between now and then is simply the passage of time. Palitaw will be there to rise with you when you are.
Palitaw (Coconut, sesame and sugar coated sticky rice cakes)
Makes 12-15 pieces | Prep time 20 mins | Cook time 20 mins
- 3 cups glutinous (sticky) rice flour, available at Asian grocery stores or online
- 1-1/2 cups water
- 3/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup sesame seeds, lightly toasted
- Pinch of salt
- Large pot (for boiling water)
- Baking trays (one for prep, one for finished rice cakes)
- Mixing bowl, wooden spoon, slotted spoon
Mix glutinous rice flour and water in a bowl, then knead for a minute on a clean counter until the dough is smooth. Measure a heaping tablespoon of the dough, roll in your hands and flatten. Repeat until the dough is finished. Lay all the flat rice cakes on a baking tray. Drop the rice cakes in boiling water (don't overcrowd them!) and wait until they float, 2-3 minutes each. Use the slotted spoon to transfer cooked rice cakes to another baking tray. In a bowl, combine the shredded coconut, sugar and sesame seeds, then coat the cooked rice cakes generously with the topping. Enjoy as soon as you can!
About the Author
Nastasha Alli was born and raised in the Philippines and came to Canada in 2007. For her writing at the intersection of food and diaspora communities, she won a Food Sustainability Media Award from the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Her work has been featured on CBC Radio and her recipe published in a "top cookbook of 2018" by the San Francisco Chronicle. She talks about Philippine food history, traditions and culture with guests from around the world on her Exploring Filipino Kitchens podcast.