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What Is Kalamay?

By Marco Sumayao
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kalamay is a sweet rice-based delicacy from the Philippines. The snack most often comes in the form of a sticky brown paste, although less viscous versions also exist. Although names and recipes vary between the country's different regions, the base ingredients are consistently the same: glutinous rice, coconut milk, and brown sugar. Kalamay can be eaten on its own or as a topping for other kakanin, or sticky rice dishes.

One of the main differences between kalamay and other kakanin like espasol is that the rice used for kalamay is finely ground before cooking. This gives the dish its signature paste-like quality. Coconut milk is added to the ground rice and set aside, while a second batch of coconut milk is used to make latik, a sweet sauce usually used for suman, another type kakanin. The latik is made by cooking the coconut milk with brown sugar until it becomes a thick brown syrup; the fresh latik is then mixed with the rice paste made earlier until all the ingredients merge into a sticky brown paste.

This most basic form of kalamay can be given a separate identity based on the province in which it was made. Cooks from Bohol, for example, spell it as "calamay" and serve it sealed inside a hollowed-out coconut shells. Kalamay from Tarlac, on the other hand, use green rice to produce their version of the dish, nilubyan. The delicacy's sticky texture lends itself to its nickname in Baguio, kulangot, the Tagalog word for "snot." Kulangot is usually packed in smaller sago shells to further the playful image.

Other regions add flavor to their kalamay, making it distinct from more traditional preparations. In Mindoro, for example, locals add peanut butter to the paste, while others add grated coconut meat. Some chefs add butter or vanilla to accentuate the different flavors present in the dish. In many regions, the kalamay is a flavoring itself, used as a topping for other snacks and desserts like sapin-sapin.

Given the wide variety of preparations for kalamay, experts have difficulty pinpointing the delicacy's exact origins. While the use of coconuts and rice is a clear indicator of traditional Philippine cuisine, similarities in preparation lead some food historians to believe that it takes its roots from the Chinese nian gao, a rice dish commonly served during the Chinese New Year. The presentation of the dish can be attributed to later influences; the coconut shells in which the delicacy is contained, for example, are often sealed with red Japanese paper.

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