The afternoons in Samar are rainy. These days on the farm most work is done in the mornings, and the afternoons are spent indoors sorting seeds, snoozing, catching up on reading. On one such afternoon I invite Manang Dayday, who lives next door, to make the famous rice cake from Samar–suman latik. Traditionally prepared for fiestas, Christmas and special occasions requiring the feeding of crowds, this particular batch will be my pasalubong for friends and family back in Manila.
Two kilos of glutinous rice, she said, and 4 pieces of kalamay (panutsa in Tagalog), dark raw sugar molded in coconut half shells. The cream from 4 mature coconuts, and about 80 leaves of the hagikhik plant.
That morning I go with Michael, her son, up to the hills behind the convent to gather the leaves. He is 24, my own son’s age, and he just finished a degree in criminology but hasn’t yet passed the board. Meanwhile, he takes care of the pigs and cows for the convent. The hills are covered with trees—bananas, santol, the ubiquitous coconut tree–and overgrown underfoot with bushes and grass. I ask him about a beautiful tree in a clearing, tall and stately, and he tells me it is a pili tree, now full of the dark fruit which contain the tender, delicately flavored nut similar in taste to the almond.
This land, he says, my great grandparents said they used to live here, and they planted all those santol trees. On the way up we encounter 3 men, nimble and swarthy, balancing expertly on the treetops as they harvest coconuts to make copra. They nod in greeting as we pass. Michael shows me which leaves of the hagikhik plant are suitable for the suman. We gather the leaves and head back to the convent.
Manang Dayday arrives mid-afternoon. She is a large woman of middle age, mother of four. The last time I saw her, she had just lost her husband of 30 years. How are you doing, I ask. As well as can be expected, she says, but there is some good news: the government agency where her husband had been a contractual temp for over 20 years has offered his old job to their eldest daughter. Small mercies, she smiles.
All the ingredients are assembled. She picks over the hagikhik leaves, looking critically at each one, putting aside the ones which are too small, or are starting to wilt, and carefully wiping each one clean. She washes the rice grains several times in water before putting it in a big pot with more water to cover, and adds 8 tablespoons of lye water for flavor and color.
The rice is put to a boil and when all the liquid is just absorbed but before the rice is fully cooked, she takes the pot off the stove and lets the mixture cool slightly.
Then the wrapping begins. She puts about 2 tablespoons of the half-cooked rice on the back of a hagikhik leaf, about two thirds down from the pointed end. The sides are folded in to make a little point at the bottom. This point is folded up to create a little package, the top sides are folded in again, and one last fold seals the suman, ready for final cooking. It’s a few steps, but looks simple enough. I try my hand at the folding but of course I mess it up. Manang Dayday has folded thousands of these suman over the years.
She made them as a girl, helping her mother at Christmas and for the annual fiesta, every year of her life. She laughs gently at my effort and adjusts my sorry looking suman. You wrap it too loosely, she says, and the rice will fall out while cooking. Too tight and it will burst out. We are joined by Auring, who helps with the convent housework, and the two women set to work wrapping the suman. They work quietly, with a practiced rhythm.
At last all the suman are wrapped: 79 pieces in all. Manang Dayday goes through each one again, snipping the ends when they are too long, tucking a stray edge here and there. The suman are packed tightly in a big pot which has been lined with more hagikhik leaves. About 2 inches of water are poured into the pot and it is set on the stove to boil for about an hour and half, or “until the leaves turn color”. Meanwhile the coconut cream is poured into another pot and heated with the half spheres of kalamay.
Finally everything is cooked. The suman’s outer wrapping has turned an olive green color, the syrup to be used for topping is thick and sweet. The ladies have left for the day, and my pasalubong is ready to be packed for the eager folks back home.