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Rolling with Lola

March 27, 2008
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“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. 

 

DSC05592

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.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. Cleo permalink
    February 22, 2014 6:56 pm

    When I read your comment about Gloria Santos, I had to check the blog on the Grandmother’s cookbook, and it was Tita Glo of Kirkland, WA, whom I have me through the Limjoco’s of Lompoc, CA. in 2003 and again in 2009, when we ate at Kawali Grill, formerly owned by my husband’s cousin, The Castro’s of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur.

  2. Catalina Mathis permalink
    December 4, 2010 10:53 am

    I’ve been looking for this recipe for a long time and nobody in my family or friends know how to make them. I remember eating them when I was young growing up in Pampanga. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  3. July 16, 2008 9:44 am

    You are most welcome, Tina! This is precisely why I am writing this book. Enjoy!

  4. Tina permalink
    June 28, 2008 1:46 pm

    When I saw the picture, I almost cried. I have been looking for this recipe for years. I grew up with my Grandma’s fantastic cooking, only to lose her before I had a chance to learn from her. There are a few dishes that define her, and this is one of them. Thank you so much for bringing back a part of my past. I’m hoping to pass it along to my 2 daughters and their future families.

  5. June 9, 2008 4:30 am

    hmm your Suman must be the one that looked like Lepat Pisang???

    BTW, I love reading your blog and recipes! Thank you for sharing. I would love to add your link to my blog.

    Take care!

    pixen

  6. May 10, 2008 10:57 am

    This reminds me of a paper I did in college on my family history…Food is still prepared the same way. When family comes back from visiting the Philippines with Suman and toasted coconut, you can literally ‘taste the Philippines’ – I’m a fan! Thanks for posting.

  7. tastymealsathome permalink
    May 1, 2008 9:12 am

    This post touched my heart! Great post!

  8. April 11, 2008 4:40 pm

    looks good!!

  9. Papillong permalink
    April 10, 2008 12:20 pm

    Sounds yummy! There’s a Lao version of this which includes a slice of banana in the middle so when you bite into it, you get a burst of banana fruit, oh so yummy! Some also include red beans sprinkled w/in the rice. Fun! Keep them coming Pat!

  10. April 9, 2008 3:30 pm

    Sharon, I hope to get a lemper recipe from my mum soon!

    White on Rice Couple, I’m the same way too. That’s why this project ahs been so much fun for me! Thanks for stopping by.

    Lorena, suman isn’t difficult to make at all. Takes some patience and perseverance and lots of practice!

  11. April 9, 2008 3:28 pm

    Oh my gosh!! I’m so thrilled to see the outpouring of love from Gloria’s family! She is a wonderful person and I wish I had a Lola like Gloria–although I already feel like she’s stepped in (thanks for your prayers, Gloria!). Many thanks to Happy for making the introduction.

  12. April 9, 2008 3:24 pm

    Marvin, you’ve done a fab job learning about your heritage and cuisine. Yeah, there are a couple of changes to the recipe so do try it out again.

    Thanks, Robyn!

    VegeYum, you must be talking about lemper? My mum makes the best ever. Thanks for stopping by.

    Thanks for your encouragement, Tess! I’m looking forward to the end too :).

    Taj, I’m going to have to try it with mangoes now. Hmm…sounds like a Thai dessert too, doesn’t it?

  13. Lorena permalink
    April 7, 2008 11:31 am

    Suman is such a simple, yet delicious dessert. I usually buy it from the Filipino bakery, but will have to try my hand at making it some day, especially since Gloria makes it seem so easy.

    For weeks now, I’ve been going to church with my grandma on Sundays and getting a cooking lesson from her afterwards. We’ve made pancit, smoked tilapia, and many other Filipino dishes since. It’s been a great culinary education for me and a great way to spend time with my grandma. Your blog inspired me to start doing this and I’m planning on creating a cookbook for my cousins and I filled with my grandma’s recipes. So thanks for the inspiration!

  14. April 6, 2008 6:05 pm

    Great read on Gloria! I love reading and seeing the history and story behind the dish. It makes it that much more special.
    Thank you so very much for this special treat!

  15. Thelma permalink
    April 2, 2008 7:33 pm

    At long last, my mother-in-law gets the recognition she so deserves. Being married to Gloria’s oldest son, I am so lucky and blessed to be part of her family. I always refer to her as the ‘Martha Stewart’ of the family. Aside from making the best suman in town, she alse excels in sewing, flower arranging, and cake decorating.
    I can’t wait to see her cake for our first granddaughter Ligaya’s (Gloria’s first great grand!) first birthday this summer…(a lot of ‘firsts’ there!)
    We love you Mommy and we’re so proud of you!

  16. Cherry Alfonso permalink
    April 2, 2008 3:51 pm

    I learned how to cook “suman” from Auntie Glory.She loves sharing her recipes to all her family & friends.
    We truly love her for doing that!!

  17. April 2, 2008 9:09 am

    Looks wonderful! It reminds me of cooking with my Mom when I was younger. She used to make lemper, and I’d love to do the rolling and wrapping.

  18. Lacelle permalink
    April 1, 2008 8:00 pm

    Lola Glory you rock! I hope we could taste your suman when you visit us here again in manila. It really looks delicious! :)

  19. Kiyana permalink
    April 1, 2008 12:59 pm

    Hey, being the middle grandchild, I can say that I DO want to learn how to make our Lola’s dishes. I have called her a couple times to try and get a step by step on how to make her pork-chops in my dorm room. The problem is that they never turn out as well as hers. Nevertheless, we are all extremely proud of Lola Goia work inside and outside of the kitchen.

    We love you Lola and Lolo too because he usually helps her wash dishes after.

  20. Bengie Santos permalink
    April 1, 2008 11:47 am

    we are so proud of our mom – we’re still trying to learn some of her recipes up to this day – we just love to eat her cooking – hopefully her apos (grandchildren) will do better than us – her children.

  21. Ligaya, Happy, and BJ Santos permalink
    March 31, 2008 9:01 pm

    Thanks so much for this wonderful piece! Our family will cherish this great snapshot of our lola for years to come.

  22. taj permalink
    March 29, 2008 1:37 am

    the suman looks so delicious! the filipino way… suman is best eaten with juicy, ripe, sweet philippine mangoes. yummy

  23. March 28, 2008 2:44 pm

    Oh, my! That looks so good. And a great story as well. Your book is going to be a good read.

  24. March 28, 2008 3:55 am

    What a beautiful story. I love cooking food cooked in banana leaves, but only have had Indonesian this way. this rice sounds just perfect.

  25. March 27, 2008 6:25 pm

    Nice post, Pat! Worth waiting for…. ;-)

  26. March 27, 2008 3:50 pm

    Such a great story about Gloria Santos. It’s such a shame though that younger generations (my family included) have no desire to learn how to cook.

    I will definitely give this recipe a try, I’ll just be sure that I’m more patient this time;)

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