Six year old Jun and I were eating Cassava Cake at a local Filipino restaurant. He asked what was underneath…and could he eat it? I told him it was a banana leaf and no, you don’t eat it. He pulled off the leaf strips, smelled it…and then bit into it. “Hmmmmm….” he said quizzically.
I thought of other foods where banana leaves are used, and how much banana leaves are a part of island and Filipino cooking — and my childhood food memories.
Banana Plant with Fruit - the entire leaf (huge!) is harvested, rib removed and cut into squares for Suman or smaller as a container for Puto
In the Philippines, there are snack foods either wrapped in banana leaves, used as a bottom, or to contain sweets prior to baking or steaming…sort of like cupcake paper or cupcake foils. The difference is that the banana leaves impart a flavor when cooked.. so it is really a part of the recipe.
Puto and Suman are popular sweet treats that use banana leaves. As with many recipes, there are regional variations, and in the central Visayas, muffin-shaped Putos are made from fermented rice flour.
Contained in Banana Leaf, Filipino "Puto" sold at the Palenke (Market)
When we were little, Suman was a snack treat we often ate. It is typically made from sticky rice half-cooked with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and then steamed to finish the cooking process.
During Christmas, Suman was served with rich and dark hot chocolate drinks, using freshly ground cacao beans. We would peel the banana leaf off the Suman, and if freshly steamed, take in the aroma — before dunking it in our chocolate drinks.
Filipino Suman - Sticky Rice and Coconut Milk wrapped in banana leaves and steamed
Like Puto, Suman has many varieties depending on family and region, and can also be made from grated cassava root — one of my favorite type of Suman.
I like the fibrous texture of Cassava Suman, and sweetened with sugar and coconut milk…it is so delicious! Sometimes chocolate is swirled into the mix prior to wrapping in banana leaves, or the center is filled with sweetened ground peanuts.
I also remember eating Suman wrapped in palm leaf, but mostly the ones our family made were wrapped in banana leaves. So, essentially the word Suman is a generic name for an assortment of tube or rectangle shaped, leaf-wrapped, steamed food (typically sweet or served with sweet dipping sauce).
During past trips to the Philippines, it seems there was always someone (kind and sweet)—like our Nanay Lucing or our Auntie Terling— who made batches of Suman for us. We enjoyed the treats while there, and then a fresh batch was made right before our departure to the U.S. to take with us. Sadly, our Nanay Lucing has passed away, and though our Auntie Terling still seems young and beautiful to me, I have to accept that she is nearing her mid-seventies and is not as energetic as before.
At our last trip, my sister and I purchased our Suman at the market from these women.
Wrapped in Banana Leaves, Suman and Puto for Sale at the Market
It occurs to me that it is now OUR turn to keep alive food traditions that we enjoyed from our childhood. So…I better make sure my sisters and I know how to make Suman if I want to keep this tradition for grandsons Jun and Gabriel.
My cousin Ate Violeta and her daughter Jady stayed with us during their visit to California. Ate Violeta is an excellent cook and showed us how to make Biko while here — Biko is another popular coconut milk and sticky rice treat. I will ask her how to make Suman as well!
Jun and Gabriel loved eating Ate Violeta’s Biko and it did not last long in our household …even the extra batch we put in the freezer “for later” soon vanished.
Biko is often what Jun will choose when we get a snack at the Filipino restaurant after his Tae Kwon Do lessons (though lately he has looked for Cassava Cake and has also been enjoying Ginataan - sweet potato, bananas, jackfruit, tapioca and rice balls stewed in coconut milk).
Well…with all this good banana leaf memories…I will definitely make Suman (and hot chocolate) a holiday tradition for the boys. And though I don’t have the ease of lopping off fresh banana leaves from my backyard, I have no excuses really. It is pretty easy to get banana leaves in the U.S. —- square sheets are sold frozen at most Asian markets.
Frozen Banana Leaves --- squares or rounds --- are sold at most Asian Stores or Filipino Stores in the San Francisco Bay Area
I’ll write about my attempt at making Suman over the holidays…I have 6 months to prepare! And hopefully Jun and Gabriel will have pleasant memories associated with banana leaves…just like their Lola.