The Clay of my Childhood
The family kitchen was always at its busiest during Sundays.
My mother would wake up early to head to our kitchen and turn on the radio, tuning into the classics of the nineties. Her rustling out of bed always alerted me from my sleep, and while I didn’t always wake up completely with her, I could sense that there was some activity already going on in the kitchen.
Like the gears of a clock starting up, I would hear the faint murmurs of adults conversing and the subtle hacks of knives on the chopping board, before the crescendo that is the clanging of pots and pans. Finally half awake, I scurry to the kitchen, scantily rub my eyes, and realize that our kitchen was coming to life.
As my mother continued cooking breakfast, I would help my Lola and my aunts unload what they had bought in the market onto the dining table. And on any given market day, no basket was ever alike. I was always excited at the prospect of discovering the food they brought home, effectively my version of a treasure hunt.
Be that as it may, there were always a few things that I would secretly hope for. I would sometimes wish that she brought home the ingredients for one of my favorite comfort desserts, Ginataang Bilo-Bilo.
Ginataang Bilo-Bilo is a traditional Filipino dessert made with glutinous rice balls Kamote and Ube. Sometimes, sweetened boiled Langka, Saba chunks, and tapioca starch balls, also known as Sago, are added to add variety to the dessert. Its origins are complex. The Tagalog call it Ginataan, the Bisaya describe it as Binignit, and in Mindanao, it is known as Tabirak. While called many names, the preparation is quite similar, and straightforward.
Eventually, I would know if they did buy these ingredients. If I saw packs of raw glutinous rice flour dough, it was a dead ringer already. I knew that she would take time to whip up her special dessert.
On those days, I was eager to be part of the kitchen brigade. My Lola, patient as she was, would let me help her prepare all the ingredients she needed. Of course, she would take care of all the knife work, effortlessly slicing the fruits and root crops into identically sized morsels. She would carefully arrange them in bundles on a plate, imitating what seemed to be a quaint rainbow.
Ultimately, the star of the dish would be the glutinous rice balls, as its name suggests. Bilo-Bilo is a play on the Filipino word Bilog, to indicate the round dough balls in the dessert. They provide a chewy texture, highlighted by the mellow sweetness brought about by the coconut cream.
As for me, I was always in charge of shaping the glutinous rice balls. I usually start by softly kneading the dough, which is simply glutinous rice flour mixed with water. Early in the morning, market vendors would mix these ingredients in huge batches, resulting in tacky white lumps of dough. They then briefly dip the dough in water before wrapping to keep them moist. Some vendors on the other hand, would use a different variety of rice flour made from the Pirurutong grain, known for its distinct purple hue, resulting in a lightly colored dough.
From these large blocks, I had to portion small pieces and round them out using my palms. I would roll and roll the dough, until I have filled plates and bits of flour have already hardened on my palms. My Lola would scrutinize my work, making sure that I didn’t make the mistake of creating oversized marbles since they would still puff up when cooked, and they might end up raw in the middle after.
Whenever she wasn’t looking, I would deviate and I would make unorthodox shapes from the dough. I did this until I was able to create my own versions of snowmen, grapes, pearls, and practically anything under the sun—my imagination was my limit.
This was my childhood clay. My own clay may have been a bit different from what the other kids used to play with, but I enjoyed molding the dough as a child, and the memory of it all is still close to my heart.
As I grew older, I learned more about the dessert’s cultural roots, mostly alluding to Chinese beliefs. The roundness of the dough balls was thought to symbolize prosperity, while its distinct chew and stickiness meant tighter family relations. No wonder my Lola would always prepare the dessert during the new year festivities, to hope for an abundant year ahead.
As it is, cooking the whole dessert becomes a breeze once all of the ingredients have been thoroughly prepared. My Lola would cautiously heat sugar, water, and coconut cream in a pot just until a quiet simmer. She would then cook the root crops in the simmering liquid until they are almost tender. Afterwards, she would drop the glutinous rice balls piece by piece, taking care not to let them stick together. Fruits and tapioca balls are mixed in, and the dessert is stirred over a gentle fire, to keep the warmth.
Ginataang Bilo-Bilo is a gem of its own. It breathes what Filipino dessert should be—comforting and hearty. Anyone can choose what they want to put in the dessert, much like how an artist paints. Only this time, the canvas is the pot, and the pastel colors are the ingredients picked from the bountiful earth.
My Lola passed away years ago. I do miss her and the food that she cooked. We may have grown up now but the memory of the stories and miracles she made in her kitchen are still very much alive. And her Ginataang Bilo-Bilo will always be delightfully part of them.