Rolling with Lola

“I’ll be making suman for my grandchildren tomorrow and I’ll save some ingredients to show you next week when you come,” Gloria Santos’s cheerful voice came through with a gentle lilt over the phone. Suman (sweet rice cakes rolled in banana leaves) are Gloria’s specialty, beloved by her grandchildren and her friends at her weekly prayer meetings.

Showing me into her tidy kitchen, Gloria went straight to business. She quickly set me to task, “You’ll help me stir the rice, ok?”

As Gloria wiped and snipped banana leaves down to size, I stood in front of the stove stirring the rice and coconut mixture, no skill required. Every once in awhile Gloria would peer over my shoulder and examine the rice mixture to see if it was done.

 

Once the rice attained the right texture, it was time to start rolling.

 

Gloria laid out a banana leaf parallel to her body, scooped a tablespoon of mixture onto the leaf and her dexterous fingers started rolling. In the blink of an eye the rice was neatly bundled in the banana leaf and she was on to the next one. “So easy, no?” After years of experience I’m sure it is, but my inexperienced fingers were not as nimble. Many torn leaves and misshapen bundles later, we were done. It was easy to tell my suman apart from Gloria’s. 

 

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Can you tell which suman are mine?

 

Gloria was born in 1923 in the Manila suburb of Mandaluyong, and her youthful countenance and feisty spirit belie her several decades on this earth.

Growing up in the Philippines in the 1930s, Gloria never cooked–nor did any housework for that matter–at home. Like many middle class families of the time, maids did most of the work. “I just looked at what my grandma was doing. I didn’t know anything.”

During World War II, things changed drastically. Gone were the hired help and Gloria, aged 16, was the one doing the cooking. With wartime rationing, food was hard to come by. She remembers congee (rice porridge) being on the menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And it wasn’t always made with rice. “Rice was very expensive and we used any substitute we could find. We even used corn and ground it.”

This was also when, out of necessity, Gloria learned how to make her signature sweet. “I made suman and sold it to people because of the hardship.”

Soon after the war, Gloria graduated from college with a degree in education, met her husband, Benjamin, and got married. She started teaching at the age of 22, and between her growing family and her budding career, she had no time to cook. “I would give the maid money to go marketing and when I came home from work, the food was ready.”

In 1968, Gloria and her husband, with their three teenage children in tow, moved to the U.S. to escape civil unrest in the Philippines. Here, she had to juggle a job outside the home–first devising patient menus at the University of Washington Medical Center, and then teaching English as Second Language (ESL) to newly arrived Asian immigrant students in public schools–and feeding her husband and three children. Fortunately for her, it wasn’t too difficult to recall the cuisine she grew up with. “I asked my friends how to cook this and that, and I remembered from watching my grandma. I put the two together and I knew what to do.” Of course, Gloria is now a pro at cooking traditional Filipino dishes like adobo, kare kare and chicken tinola.

To this day, Gloria still cooks family feasts at Thanksgiving and Christmas. She spends a week cooking and preparing enough food to feed close to 40 people. Although she acknowledges it’s a lot of work, she’s unwilling to leave the important task to anyone else. “If other people bring the food, they’ll be late and we’ll all be hungry!”

Gloria also loves to bake, and has amassed an entire store room of cake pans and decorating tools in her Kirkland, WA home. In fact, she’s been busy baking from the day her first grandson, BJ, was born. “For 34 years, I made cakes for BJ. I made him Mickey Mouse, and many others.” She has baked a cake for every one of her five grandchildren’s birthdays, and now she intends to continue that tradition with her great-grand-daughter. She never strays from her favorite recipe: mocha chiffon cake with butter cream icing “If I change the recipe, people are not happy.”

Sadly, none of her children or grandchildren are interested in baking or learning how to cook Filipino dishes. “They only want to eat!” Gloria declares with a sigh. “Lola (grandmother), lola, I want to eat!” they always say when they visit, usually demanding dishes like pork chops and hamburgers. She likes to tease them. “I ask them, ‘You want some tongue (beef or pork tongue is considered a Filipino delicacy)?'” she says, with a playful glint in her eye. Their response? “‘Eew,’ they say.”

Gloria’s Sweet Rice Rolls Wrapped in Banana Leaves (Suman Sa Gata)

Suman refers to any cake that’s wrapped in banana or coconut leaves, whether made from rice, grain, or root. The ingredients are few and the method simple, but it is one of the oldest and most popular Filipino snacks. In Gloria Santos’s version, the banana leaves imbue a sweet, tropical fragrance and flavor to the coconut-soaked glutinous rice, or malagkit as it is called in Tagalog. Wrapping suman is a skill in itself and takes years of practice as Gloria can attest to–she’s been making them for decades. Today, her family and friends always look forward to unwrapping these neatly-bound bundles and biting into the moist mound of sweet goodness lying within. Don’t be discouraged if yours take a while to perfect.

Time: 2 hours (1 hour active)
Makes: 30 rolls

2 cups white glutinous rice
One and one-half 13.5-ounce cans coconut milk (2 1/2 cups)
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 to 3 banana leaves, fresh or frozen

Rinse rice 3 to 4 times until water runs clear. Drain.

In a 14-inch wok or 4-quart heavy bottomed pot, combine rice with remaining ingredients except banana leaves. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce to medium. Simmer for 30 minutes, stirring constantly especially during the last 15 minutes of cooking. You don’t want rice to stick to the bottom of the pan and scorch. Reduce heat if rice mixture starts to burn at any point.

After about 20 minutes, expect the oil from the coconut milk to separate from rice mixture and coat wok with a thin film. The rice mixture will pull away easily from the sides of the pan. When done, rice mixture is shiny, almost dry and very sticky, like risotto. Let cool in the wok.

Wipe away any white residue on leaves with a damp cloth. Remove spine and trim to 4- by 7-inch rectangles with the longer edge going along the grain.

Place a banana leaf rectangle on a dry work surface with the smooth, matt side up (the shiny side has faint ridges) and longer edge parallel to your body. Drop 1 1/2 tablespoons of rice mixture in the middle of the leaf. Mold rice into a mound about 4- by 1 1/2-inches. Take the leaf edge closest to you and fold it over rice. Using both sets of fingers, tuck leaf edge under the rice and roll to enclose filling completely. Roll as tightly as possible into a compact cylinder. With the seam-side down, smooth your fingers across the cylinder to gently flatten and fold both ends under to form a snug packet. Place seam-side down directly in a steamer basket. Repeat until rice mixture is finished, layering packets neatly in a single layer and one on top of the other if necessary.

Set up your steamer.

Fill steamer bottom with a generous amount of water, about 2 to 3 inches, and bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-high.

Place basket with rice rolls above. Cover and steam over medium-high heat for 45 minutes to 1 hour. You should see steam escaping from underneath the lid.

Cook’s tip: As steam circulates underneath the lid, water will condense and collect around the circumference of the basket. Drape a kitchen towel over the basket before covering with lid to prevent water from dripping onto the food.

Halfway through the cooking process, reduce heat to low and carefully take a peek at the water level and replenish, if necessary, with boiling water. Raise heat back to medium-high.

When done, turn off heat and wait for steam to subside before lifting lid. Lift it away from you to prevent condensation from dripping onto rice rolls or scalding yourself.

Carefully remove steamer basket and cool on a rack before removing rice rolls.

Cook’s note:

Banana leaves are available frozen in 1-pound packages (and sometimes fresh) at Asian or Latin markets. Partially thaw frozen packages first before prying the leaves open. Using a pair of scissors, remove what you need and refreeze the unused portion. Always remove dark brown edges and the tough spine. Before using, rinse under hot running water or dip into boiling water for 20 to 30 seconds to soften and make pliable.

Instead of folding the ends under, you can also tie the ends with kitchen twine or banana leaf threads torn along the grain to make a “sweet.”

The rice rolls keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days. Do not refrigerate or they will harden.

You can find rice labeled “malagkit” at Asian markets, or substitute with mochi rice (Japanese sweet rice) if in a pinch.

Grandma says:
If the banana leaf tears while you’re rolling the packet, place another layer on the inside to “patch” the hole.