Bibingka, puto, suman, sapin-sapin—we’ve all grown up knowing what these are, but these days, in the cacophony of sweets to choose from, these kakanin or rice cakes aren’t always top of mind. Yes, we may still enjoy bibingka and puto bumbong during Christmas season when the makeshift stalls come out. Or we may partake when a friend or relative visits bearing extra special kakanin from their hometown. But when there’s milk tea or chocolate chip cookies to be had, sometimes we forget that our traditional rice cakes offer as much as (or even more) variety and satisfaction than those dairy and gluten-filled treats.
While kakanin is readily available at the palengke, malls, or even sidewalks, with this year’s pandemic keeping us at home, they may be harder to come by. Thankfully, two enterprising friends, Angelo Comsti and Edward Mateo, thought to introduce their love for kakanin via @minatamisph on Instagram, in effect bringing these traditional sweets to the social media age.
Kakanin is an all-encompassing term for sweets that are usually, but not always, rice based, and consumed for breakfast or merienda, but rarely to end a meal. “Although kakanin employ only three basic ingredients—starch, sugar, and liquid—the permutations of cooking and variations in regional styles produce an infinite number of sweet concoctions of different textures, levels of sweetness, stickiness, and artistry of presentation,” describes Amy Besa in The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (2015). While most every Filipino is aware of at least a few types of kakanin, there is yet to be a complete directory or reference of kakanin across every town, province, and region.
The genesis of Minatamis as an online business was a direct result of the COVID-19 situation.
Comsti is well known in food circles as a cookbook author, food writer, food stylist, and events host/organizer with a much-followed Instagram account, @fooddudeph, for his food finds.
Mateo is the accomplished pastry chef behind La Royale Patisserie, who also works as a consultant, food stylist, culinary instructor, and brand ambassador for Breville. Hailing from Los Baños, Laguna, he started baking at a young age, and would even cook during fiestas and town celebrations.
“Edward and I have been long-time friends and would often throw business ideas to each other that never really panned out. At the start of the year, we made it our resolution to finally start one,” relates Comsti. “We initially thought of offering different kinds of ginataan, from ginataang bilo-bilo, mais and monggo, to more regional ones like Bulacan’s Paralosdos. We made a deck and presented it to a big shopping mall for possible stall spaces. And then the pandemic happened.”
The friends thought to change their plans, with Mateo sending Comsti a sample of biko that he had made, and Comsti declaring, “that was the best I ever had.” Thus Minatamis was born in early June this year, with the now famous Biko as its first product for sale. Biko is made with glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk and brown sugar, and topped with latik or coconut curds. Minatamis’s version is as traditional as it gets, with a sweetness that doesn’t overpower, a deep caramel-y flavor, and a texture that teeters at just the right point between too-heavy and too-light.
Kakanin recipes may seem simple, but it’s in the choice and preparation of ingredients, the way they’re cooked, and the multiple micro-procedures passed on from one maker to the next that make the very best kakanin really difficult to replicate at home.
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Minatamis follow these old-school methods, which means no machines, no shortcuts, no extenders. They use only freshly squeezed coconut milk, not canned. “Our staff mixes the latik using a kawa until brown and thick. Some use cornstarch so the long process can be cut to half,” reveals Comsti. The latik needs to be stirred constantly for close to an hour to get an even flavor, and reach the desired color and consistency. For their Cassava Cake, they use actual cassava crop instead of cassava flour (which others may tend to use). If ever they adjust, it’s the level of sweetness which they temper according to their preference. “Not too sweet. Just a tinge,” admits Comsti.
From Biko, Minatamis steadily introduced other products like the multi-colored Sapin-sapin, sweet corn-studded Maja Blanca, and the Cassava Cake. According to Comsti, they started with the more familiar varieties that they happen to personally like, but they hope to introduce more regional variants as well. “Those that we in Manila don't have easy access to,” says Comsti. “I got to learn them and document the recipes when I did my cookbook and so we’re actually ready to produce them.” His 2019 cookbook, Also Filipino: 75 Regional Dishes I Never Had Growing Up, features such delicacies as Tibuk-tibok from Pampanga, Tupig from Isabela, Masi from Cebu, Inkalti from Ilocos Norte, and Bingka from Iloilo.
Since the partners started Minatamis, business has been brisk. “Luckily, the people who got to try it first really liked our products, then word of mouth got around.” What’s encouraging is that their customers are a good mix, from “old people who ask help from their family members to order from us because they don't know how to use Instagram” to young people who then post their own photos of the kakanin they ordered on social media.
Minatamis may seem like just one of the many food businesses that have cropped up since the pandemic hit the restaurant industry hard, but perhaps there’s a greater purpose behind the brand. It serves as our vital connection to “slow food” traditions—involving local farm-produced ingredients, muscle power, and the luxury of time—that have been around for generations. And these traditions are staying alive and vibrant, not just chronicled in people’s social media feeds, but delivered to their homes as well.
Photos courtesy of Minatamis