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What Is Suman?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 16, 2024
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Suman is a Filipino delicacy primarily made of sticky rice and coconut milk, and is usually called “rice cake” in English. It is usually seen as the equivalent of the Mexican tamale, though the latter is often made with “masa,” a type of flour, and has some fillings, which suman does not. The rice cake usually has a long, cylindrical or rectangular appearance, though sometimes it takes the shape of a pyramid. It is often wrapped in either palm or banana leaves, both of which impart an aroma to the rice when the wrapping is opened. Suman has been a long-established part of Filipino cuisine and can be eaten as a breakfast meal, snack, or even during fiestas and Christmas celebrations.

It is uncertain how the suman was invented, but it is not surprising that such a food is created, given that rice is one of the most important foods and crops in the Philippines. It is said that rice cakes can be traced back to the Filipino’s pagan era, before the Spanish and American colonization and their Christian influences. During harvest time, the people would utilize the collected rice and turn into rice dishes called “kakanin,” which include the rice cakes. The cakes would also often be a part of the food offering presented to the spirits and gods, and probably to deceased loved ones as well.

Different Philippines regions and provinces usually have their own versions of the suman, but the most basic method of cooking it is to cook or soak the sticky rice first in water before cooking it in coconut milk. It is important that the rice is the sticky or the glutinous variety because it contains more starch, making the rice sweeter and the grains stick together more easily. Some recipes suggest mixing some coconut milk into the water for a creamier texture. When the rice is cooked, it is recooked, this time in coconut milk, sometimes with a little salt and sugar. Some versions of the suman mix other ingredients into the rice, such as grated coconut or cassava, creating a grainy texture.

When the coconut milk-infused rice has finished cooking, a few spoonfuls of it are placed on a small piece of banana leaf and wrapped in the desired shape. The banana leaves are usually “cooked” over an open flame first to make them softer and more flexible. When the leaves turn a more vibrant green, they can be used as a wrapping. Suman is also eaten with a variety of toppings, such as grated coconut, coconut jam, or a simple sprinkling of brown sugar. It can also be dipped in some chocolate sauce or even eaten alongside slices of ripe mango.

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