The Puto Lady

No, it’s not a bad word…at least in the Philippines. 🙂

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WHAT IS PUTO?

  • sweet, steamed rice cake often enjoyed for merienda (snack) or for dessert
  • Usually named in a steamer named after the dessert itself, called the putuhan.  The rice batter is poured directly on to a katsa (muslin cloth) that is stretched over the steamer. (some picture here and here)
  • often topped with sweet cheese, butter, or coconut.
  • Because rice is a plentiful crop, affords much creativity with unlimited varieties (ex: Puto Lanson (grated cassava), Puto Manapla (cooked with Saba banana leaves, Puto Maya (violet rice soaked in water))
  • Philippine city famous for their production of puto: Binan City, Laguna.

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Being born in the central coast and having most of my family live in the San Luis Obispo area, I spent many summers and weekends in a town called Arroyo Grande. It’s so quaint it’s often referred to as simply “the village.”

During the holidays we’d get together at my grandmother’s house at the top of a steep cul-de-sac. If it were a holiday or some other special occasion, my mother would call the “puto lady” with an order.

The packages of puto would arrive wrapped in brown paper with masking tape neatly binding the sides together. Another layer of wax paper lay below. And underneath all of this were the smooth slabs of sticky white puto, cut diagonally.

We would tear along the perforations hurriedly and have a triangular piece of puto in our hands in no time. Just looking at the individual pieces we knew that sweat was one of the main ingredients. The white rice had been pounded so arduously that we could no longer see the original grains. The slabs looked as smooth as if made from a batter.

It was the texture that delighted above all else. The taste was a hint sweet, but mostly cool and mellow. Instead, it was that perfect balance of sticky rice and bubbly pores that gave the puto a cold, gummy texture that was comforting on the teeth.

I never knew the “cupcake” shaped putos and was kind of reticent to try them at first. It’s food snobbery at the very least, but it was alluring to have a mystery lady make my family puto personally from a secret family recipe. It gave our family gatherings a token charm.

I was told a couple of years ago that the “puto lady” had passed, and a small light inside of me dimmed. I know that she had harbored this culinary secret all of her life. She had created a taste summit in her memory, and there was something about that devotion to food that spoke to me.

Out of all of the Filipino desserts or meriendas, puto is probably the thing that I order least, because I’m stubborn. Nobody’s version ever rises to the challenge. My Dad once saw her buy Japanese sticky rice at the grocery store and swears that was the secret. I wish we knew. But I’m sure no matter how many times we tried to get it right, there would always be something missing.

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What about you? Do you have any memories that involve puto? I’d love to hear them.

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