Suman (Filipino Steamed Sticky Rice Cakes)
Why It Works
- Soaking the rice overnight helps develop to a softer, fluffier texture and reduces the overall cooking time.
- Wrapping and steaming the suman in banana leaves imparts a distinct floral flavor that adds complexity.
- Steaming the cooked rice ensures the final rice cake has its proper sticky texture.
Growing up in the Philippines, I was often woken from my siesta by the rhythmic chanting of street vendors, whose voices echoed through the empty sweltering streets in the late afternoon. This is how I knew it was time for merienda, otherwise known as a meal in between meals or, you know, snack time. I used to rush to our balcony, craning my neck as if I were a giraffe, to find the street peddler. If they were close to our house, I would chant back to them. Soon after, I was rewarded with the privilege of choosing first from their warm steaming basket. Tucked inside was suman (a steamed sticky rice cake), mwasi (a boiled rice patty topped with shredded coconut and muscovado sugar), baye-baye (a mochi-like cylindrical cake made with toasted young or glutinous rice, grated coconuts, and muscovado sugar), and sometimes a version of a donut twist called bicho-bicho. It just depended on the day and the peddler’s whims.
The suman I often got from the peddler—which is the recipe I’m sharing here—is made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It’s then served hot with a generous sprinkle of muscovado sugar on top and/or with a side of sweet ripe mango. The banana leaf gives the suman a distinct tinge of green and imparts a floral scent to the rice cake.
In pre-colonial Philippines, growing rice was labor-intensive and rice was therefore largely reserved for deities, leaders, and socio-religious rituals and gatherings like harvest ceremonies or honoring ancestors. After the industrialization of agriculture, the Philippines produced more rice and the crop eventually became everyday fare to be enjoyed by all, spinning off countless rice-based dishes and snacks, including a vast array of baked, steamed, and boiled rice-based snacks called kakanin, derived from two Tagalog words: “kain” (to eat) and “kanin” (rice).
Kakanin, meanwhile, can be further broken down into subcategories, one of which is suman, which is a type of rice cake that is usually wrapped in something. There are many versions of suman, which vary among regions and even from island to island and are distinguished by the kind of wrapper used or the methods employed to cook them. You can change some of the ingredients, the wrapper, and the shape and still make something understood to be suman. There’s suman latik―sticky rice cake served with coconut caramel and curds―and suman sa lihiya, which is made with lye. On Panay Island where I was raised, we have at least three different kinds of suman: ibus (eeh-boos), which is the same sticky rice cake but wrapped in buri (palm leaves) and boiled; biko (bee-koh) made with whole rice kernels (not ground rice or rice flour) and cooked with coconut milk and brown sugar, then slathered with latik, a coconut caramel sauce, and baked (unlike most suman, biko is not wrapped in leaves, but it’s still understood by most to be a type of suman); and alupi (ah-loo-pee), which is a grated cassava suman. There’s also a suman called moron (or chocolate suman) that’s a mix of sticky rice and tablea (native chocolate).
When I was developing this recipe, it was important to me to perfect the sticky rice itself, which is the primary component. You can always jazz up the rice by adding other flavorings like ginger, chocolate, and grated coconut, but the success of this suman sinks or swims with the rice.
The key to making a good suman is soaking the rice ahead of time to help fully hydrate the grains and cut down on your cooking time. I’ve definitely burned the bottom of a pot while making suman and that’s something we want to avoid: As you cook the rice, it releases starch that will stick to the bottom and sometimes sides of the pot if not stirred constantly. When the rice burns, there’s no saving it, so make sure to mind and stir the rice at all times.
After the initial cooking of the rice, it’s spread out to cool, then cut into portions and wrapped in the banana leaves, which then get cooked again—an essential two-stage cooking process that gives the finished suman its signature sticky texture. There are multiple ways to cook the assembled suman packets, but the primary one is to steam them. When setting up your steamer, make sure you always have enough water at the bottom and check in between batches and refill as needed. I recommend letting the water come to a boil first before you add the suman to steam, so you’ll have a more accurate cooking time than if you load the whole thing up and then wait for the steam to start. If you’re adding additional water to prevent the steamer from going dry, make sure to get it up to boiling first so that you don’t drop the temperature and cut the steam off midway through cooking.
Once the suman is steamed, give it a couple of minutes to cool down before opening the banana leaf wrapper, but not long enough that it’s gone cold. It needs to have enough residual heat to slowly melt the topping of muscovado sugar, and also to provide a contrast with the cool mango. I almost always pair my suman with a cup of coffee to balance the sweet with a little bitter. You can even add a scoop of ice cream and make it suman à la mode. Beyond that, feel free to treat this sticky rice cake as your blank canvas and let your imagination go wild.