Sunday, April 10, 2011

Food and Oral History: Rice Cake (Biko)

My cousins Paul and Diana.  Diana made the rice cake.
     My grandmother taught me how to make this dish when I was maybe ten years old.  I remember only that this was a caramel tasting delight of sweet chewiness.  Some call this dish sticky rice, but there are so many kinds of Filipino dishes made of sticky rice, it is difficult to tell which one people are talking about.  We just called this rice cake and this is grandma's rice cake.  Nobody has made this like my grandmother that I have tasted in Houston.

     My brothers and sisters and I were sad because we thought that this recipe was lost when our grandmother died.  We take these things for granted, that a recipe is a recipe and with the internet you can find almost anything.  Maybe to some extent this is true.  If it is, then why were we unable to duplicate my grandmother's rice cake?  Was there some secret ingredient she threw in there that we could not distill in our own taste buds?  After grandmother died, we used to be excited every time we saw the rice cake at a Filipino party.  To our dismay, the recipe of others did not quite have that something that grandma's had.   

     For the Merienda party, I called my uncle to see if he would cook my grandma's rice cake.  He responded with an "I will try," then click on the phone. It was literally a twenty word conversation, if even.  I was not sure what to expect.  Imagine my delight when I discovered that my uncle had the recipe for the rice cake and that my cousin would attempt to cook the recipe!  Not only would we be able to revitalize the lost recipe, but my cousin was going to learn how to cook the cake and this in itself was a sign of passing down something to the next generation, which is "a beautiful thang."

     When the cake was presented at the party, my aunt mentioned that in the process, my cousin thought she had burnt it.  My aunt was not sure, but she looked to me imploringly and asked, "I think it is supposed to look like that, right?"  I nodded and replied that I thought it looked just like grandma's cake.  Rather than look at the crispy, brown top as burnt, we are supposed to look at it as a caramelization of the brown sugar, which can be tasty because it adds to the texture.

Grandma's handwritten Biko recipe
     After the Merienda, I asked my cousin to provide the instructions on how to cook the Biko.  I am unsure why, but after weeks of asking my cousin, she could not produce it.  At first I thought she did not want to share the recipe with me.  I imagined it was like an heirloom unwilled to anyone, but in possession of a family member.  Then I concluded the lack of delivery to her being wrapped up in her busy teenage schedule.  I still wonder if there was some truth in not sharing the treasured paper.  So, one Sunday afternoon, I drove to my uncle's house for operation rice cake to get my hands on the illusive recipe.  The recipe had been kicking around in a drawer in their kitchen.  It was left there, tattered and stained from use.  I held back tears, I must admit, when my cousin pulled the worn index card from their cluttered kitchen drawer.  I saw the rice cake title, "Biko" written in grandma's very careful handwriting.   There were other recipes as well.  In three minutes, I had acquired all the seemingly forgotten pieces of paper.  My cousin professed that her family really did not look at the other recipes anymore.  The dishes they cooked often, they knew by heart.  I promised to return the artifacts.

So here is the recipe for Biko (rice cake) as written by Grandma Cording:

6 cups sweet rice add 6 cups water - boil till done.
Boil 1 1/2 box of brown sugar to 2 cans of coconut milk till it will form thick syrup.
Mix the cook rice to the syrup of coconut milk and brown sugar till absorb. Transfer to a baking pan and top it with condense milk and bake till the condense milk turns brown.

     It is amazing that this recipe has only three ingredients.  It is the simplicity of it that makes it so good.  I like to cut the rice cake up in little squares so people can just nibble in small bits.  This is helpful to do at a party if all your guests claim to be cutting down on carbs.  It only takes one person eating the cake to give that stamp of approval before the rest of the cake gets devoured.  If you have leftovers, it is okay because this cake tastes even better the next day after it has been chilled.  Drink with warm tea.

     After eating the cake for the first time since my grandmother died, I was still a little disappointed.  In my heavy-hearted realization, I acknowledge that she was the missing ingredient we had longed for.  For a brief moment while enjoying the Biko, she was with me.  I quietly smiled and sipped my tea.

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