Daprosa Ambid, Suman Latik Artisan Par Excellence
Abundantly blessed with coconuts, rice and sugarcane, provinces in Western Visayas share in the suman latik tradition. Eaten as breakfast or snack, suman latik is basically a rectangular bed of pilit (glutinous rice) boiled for hours in banana leaf packets. Once cooked, they are topped with grated or shredded coconuts candied in muscovado.
More than any other rice cake from my childhood, I grew up loving suman latik the best. Going to the historic Jaro Huebesan was a weekly ritual. Lola Lucy and I, with my kiddie alat or market basket, would visit her suki at the karan-unon (kakanin) section of the Huebesan, literally a stone’s throw from my Lola’s house. I fondly recall the delight of watching the lady in patadyong carefully unfold the banana leaf. She then spoons out rich bukayo from her small kaserola and lays it onto the suman. Finally, she folds it close and hands over my treat.
Fast forward to 2007. My dearest Lola Lucy had already gone ahead; I was juggling motherhood and academic duties. What I didn’t expect was to be reunited, up close and personal, with the rice cake of my childhood.
One day, someone gave me a beautifully wrapped suman latik akin to miniature overstuffed green pillows. Its contents revealed a tempting mound of finely-shredded bukayo heaped on an extra-thick suman bed. This was no generic suman latik, I thought. With a surfacing interest in Ilonggo food heritage, I decided to find its maker.
The search led me to the home of Mrs. Daprosa Ambid at Barangay Ingore, La Paz, Iloilo. In the 1960s, she accompanied her husband who migrated from the town of Alimodian to work as a manangguete or tuba-gather. Back then, Ingore and neighboring Baldosa were aplenty with coconut groves. (These barangays are the city’s rice cake centers to this day).
To help her husband support their seven children, Nanay Rosa cooked mais and a variety of rice cakes to peddle. Every afternoon, rain or shine, Nanay Rosa and many other women from Ingore and Baldosa, walked the streets of the city while gracefully balancing on their heads the tabig (woven bamboo bins). In their signature melismatic voice, these manuglibud sang their karan-unon menu: mais, suman latik, puto lanson, suman, alupi, linupak, muasi, bicho-bicho and many more.
Although suman latik making is common knowledge in Panay and Negros, Manang Rosa’s version is truly exceptional. For that, she is grateful to a suki, a public school teacher at La Paz, who taught her a traditional Visayan technique of making wood-ash lye or lihiya. This enhances the taste and lengthens the shelf-life of the suman.
I have never seen such devotion to quality than with Nanay Rosa. Here was an amiable old woman intensely particular about the ingredients, technique and appearance of her indigenous cakes. Gemma, her daughter and work buddy ever since, exhibits the same dedication to quality and hard work.
The whole process starts with carefully chosen glutinous rice that is thoroughly washed, then seasoned with salt. Finally, that extraordinary ingredient is poured in: kulitis lye. While other makers simply buy commercial lihiya, Nanay Rosa chooses to make it from scratch. Extracted through a laborious process from the kulitis plant (slender amaranth), this natural lye is the secret to Nanay Rosa’s delectable suman latik. She recalls with amusement how people thought her crazy scouring roadsides, vacant lots and open fields to forage for mature kulitis plants.
Once prepared, the pilit mixture is ready for wrapping. Two heaping spoonfuls are placed on two sheets of banana leaf then expertly folded tight. Tied in pairs, the parcels are stacked compactly inside a recycled cooking oil can, then filled with water and finally covered with a weighted down pad of banana leaves. After three to four hours of intense boiling over fire supplied by wood shavings and sibucao branches, the tin can is left to rest over cooling embers until the next morning.
Now for the latik topping. Manang Rosa will have nothing else but tender bukayuon meat, shredded to incredibly fine strips. Bukayu-on are coconuts older than kulabu-on (ideal for buko juice) but younger than lukadon, (coconuts hard enough for grating but not mature enough for thick gata). Manang Rosa’s insistence on shredding the bukayu-on to such fine texture and slow-cooking it in rich brown muscovado is what sets her latik apart. It is firm and thick, not soggy nor syrupy.
With the bukayo prepared in advance and the pilit rectangles cooled, the rice cake is ready for packaging.
The wet, discolored banana packaging is peeled off; the suman is transferred to two sheets of fresh banana leaves , topped with bukayo then folded up nicely.
Even if it meant extra work and expense, Nanay Rosa thought of twice-wrapping her suman latik when her suki bank employees often found it messy to unwrap the sticky banana leaf casing.
Last year, before Nanay Rosa turned 83, she graciously accepted our request to feature her and Gemma in a short heritage food documentary targeted at the Filipino youth. It was a small thing to do for such a great woman.
Gemma, has taken on the responsibility, practically devoting the entire day to suman latik, leaving so little time for rest and recreation.
Nanay Rosa, now hunchbacked and frail from more than 50 years of cooking, continues to help Gemma as much as she can.
Nanay Rosa has not gotten wealthy making suman latik. It is far from a comfortable life. But at every visit, I never hear rants about their economic situation. All I hear is Nanay Rosa’s excited voice telling me about her recent satisfied customers and retelling me why her suman latik is so liked. Now that is humble pride and burning passion epitomized. Daprosa Ambid, master suman latik artisan, is rich beyond measure.