Last week I spotted some lemon cream-filled crackers in the Asian supermarket (yes I am there ALL THE TIME) that I used to eat as a child in the Philippines, and which I had completely forgotten about until that moment, more than thirty years later. It triggered such a vivid memory of sitting outside on a stone doorstep in bright, hot sunshine, with little brown feet in jelly shoes, holding one of those crackers. I could remember the exact, delicious taste of them. I rang my sister that night to tell her and she had the same nostalgic reaction. I love how our brains store these rich memories, and that taste is one way of unlocking them.
I’m three months into my mission to connect with my Filipino roots via the medium of face-stuffing and, as I thought would be the case, I am having a wonderful time of it. Cookery books is the obvious way to learn more about a particular cuisine, and I have as my guide “7000 Islands; A Food Portrait of the Philippines” by Yasmin Newman which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Filipino cuisine. However I’m finding the best approach is speaking to friends and family and drawing on my own childhood memories. In doing this I’m not only tapping into the culture that I was born into but also, as I’d hoped, awakening memories.
When I was staying with my sister recently a Filipino-Mix-Mix friend who we have grown up with, brought some ingredients round for us to make Palitaw; sweet rice cakes eaten in the Philippines as a snack or dessert. They are balls of rice flour dough cooked in boiling water until they bob to the surface like little floating clouds; 'litaw' is the Tagalog word for 'float' or 'rise'. I wasn’t sure if I had ever tried them but as we cooked, cackled and reminisced together they became increasingly familiar - when I tried one my tastebuds went crazy and I was instantly transported back to childhood.
The texture of Palitaw is a common one in East Asia but not familiar in Western cuisine; they are glutinous and sticky but also firm. You'll either love them or hate them but as they are so easy to make and use just five ingredients, they are definitely worth a try (and also a brilliant recipe to make with children). If you don't like them I'll eat them for you.
1. Pour some glutinous rice flour into a bowl (available in Asian supermarkets - start with about a cup, you can always make more if you want) and gradually add water, mixing until it comes together to the consistency of play dough; you want to be able to pick it up and roll it around, without it being too wet and sticky but also not so dry so that it cracks.
2. Take small amounts of dough and roll into balls, roughly golf ball size. Then gently flatten by pressing your thumb into the middle, to form an oval shape with a slight indent.
3. Bring a pot of water to a medium simmer, and gently drop in the palitaw, just a few at a time to prevent them sticking together.
4. When the palitaw float to the surface leave them for one minute, then remove with a slotted spoon, let the water drain off and put on a plate (don't place them on kitchen roll as they will stick).
5. Let them cool slightly then dip in sugar, toasted sesame seeds and desiccated coconut (or fresh, grated coconut if you can get hold of it) - or any combination of the three according to your tastes. Eat when still warm, or put them in the fridge to firm up and eat them cold - either way they are delicious with a cup of tea.