Lent’s Silver Lining: The Dendelot of Isabela
Nowhere else in the world is Lent, a season of fasting and abstinence, more happily anticipated than in the province of Isabela, located in the perenially hot Cagayan Valley in the north of the island of Luzon. Religious devotions aside, the locals have this to be thankful for in those forty days: dendelot. Unassuming in both preparation and presentation, it seems unimaginable that something so humble can be so divine.
The dendelot is largely unheard of in other parts of the country and, in the north alone, is known by different names: binallay for some, inandila for others. No wonder it remains to be a well-kept secret! Said to have most probably originated from Echague or Ilagan in Isabela, many have yet to be introduced to this delicacy. But one thing is certain: those who have eaten this manna for themselves are changed by the encounter forever.
For many decades, locals would consume only dendelot for the entire Lenten season as they went about their grueling work in the rice and tobacco fields. The heaviness of the rice flour cake and the sugary sweetness of the latik sauce that accompanies it served to nourish both body and palate of the farmers as they labored under the heat of the raging sun. And when these same cakes wrapped in banana leaves would greet them on the dinner table in their homes, nary a complaint would be made.
One need not exile himself to these rural parts, however, to enjoy dendelot. In fact, this kakanin can be prepared in the comfort of any kitchen. First, one must add water to rice flour and knead the mixture until an even consistency is achieved. Afterwards, the “malagkit” should then be portioned into small balls and further rolled and flattened to form rectangles. Each portion is then encased in a strip of banana leaf that has been greased with butter or oil, then cooked in a steamer. Once dry and ready to be eaten, the rice cake is unwrapped, its edges lightly tinged by the green color of the banana leaves.
However, the crowning glory of the dendelot is undeniably its latik sauce, which the more naughty children and adults alike would sometimes take spoonfuls of, as if it were some sort of vitamin. To make the sauce, milk is extracted from grated coconut meat and boiled in a saucepan, then stirred until almost all of the liquid has evaporated. By this time, the milk will have begun to solidify and turn brown, forming what is called “latik,” a coconut milk reduction. Brown sugar is stirred into the mixture until it caramelizes. A bit of water is then added, and the sauce is allowed to simmer until it thickens.
Two hours—it almost comes as a surprise that such a beloved delicacy can be made within such a short time, though not nearly as surprising when you consider the fact that it can be devoured in two minutes. If you find yourself in this part of the island during Lent, veteran dendelot-eaters can teach you the best and easiest way to enjoy this kakanin: by first spreading the latik sauce on your plate. The rice cake is very sticky and, as such, is unwrapped much in the same way as you would a banana—peeling off strips of the leaf, section by section. Finally, it is carefully placed on top of the latik for one to enjoy. (Those of us who do not yet have their blood sugar levels to worry about, though, will insist on spooning another dollop or two of the latik sauce on top of the rice cake as well.)
It is not uncommon for locals in these parts to fantasize about the coming of Lent. The making of dendelot is given almost the same welcome that Christ received upon entry into Jerusalem, with palm leaves being waved adoringly in his face. Some might find it ironic to find much pleasure in a time when people also recall the passion and death of the Lord. In fact, elderly women of a stricter devotion have taken it upon themselves to abstain from dendelot too, which understandably causes gluttony to the weak of will and sweet of tooth. Others, on the other hand, might insist that the eleven-month abstinence from this delicacy has been purification enough.
Perhaps enjoying dendelot during this season might also be akin to a priest wearing pink vestments sometime toward the end of Lent. Liturgically, such an event is meant to remind us of the joy in waiting and the grace in suffering. To smile a toothy grin amid grave misfortune, to find the grace to share a meal even if you yourself are hungry, to see the silver lining in foreboding skies, and yes, to enjoy rice cakes while abstaining from meat—these testify to the unbreakable spirit of every Filipino. The word “sacrifice” comes from a Latin word that means to be made whole. It seems that there is nowhere else where this truth is more fleshed out than in the heart of Isabela.
“Binallay.” Filipino Style Recipe. 5 Nov 2013.
Dauigoy-Lachica, Rodessa. “The undiscovered, divine Binallay.” The Philippine Daily Inquirer. 14 Dec 2006.
Dy-Zulueta, Dolly. “Binallay of Ilagan, Isabela.” Flavors of Life. 13 Feb 2013.