Friday, November 2, 2012

Black Rice Biko with Latik: Celebrating the Days of the Dead

Before my family and I left for the Philippines, I had expressed an interest to my parents in learning more about our family's history.  I was excited to know more about my parents' parents and their families - to understand my place in the long line of Itchons, Guerreros, Castros, and Sibayans.  I wanted to connect with my roots.  But arriving in the Philippines and spending the first week on city tours and visiting various museums, I became suspicious that something might have been lost in translation somewhere.  But as I've learned, most things we want in life don't happen on our schedule of 'right now' and 'can't wait.'  When we find more patience and stop reaching so desperately, it's amazing how things start to just fall into place.  And for me and my search for my family's roots, that's exactly what happened.

Our second week in the Philippines was spent in Laoag and Villasis, cities far removed from the hustle and bustle of Metro Manila.  Instead of a concrete jungle with slow-moving rivers of cars, motorcycles, and jeepneys and an infestation of American fast food, there were fields of rice and sugar cane, wifi hotspots were few and very far between, and the number of malls and Starbucks could be counted on one hand.  And these cities were also home to our ancestral family graves and tombs.  

The grave of a relative on my mother's side in Laoag.

In the tomb of my father's mother and family.

Visiting the graves, there was a ritual of cleaning the tombstones, tearing away any grass  or vines that might have grown over it and wiping away the dirt.  We left flowers and if the wind would allow, we would light candles as we paid our respects and prayed for their everlasting peace and happiness.  It took me off guard the first few times, particularly when I was asked to lead a prayer for a relative who had died long before I was born.  But it gradually became clear that not having met them had no relevance: I was meeting them now.  And what began as unusual soon became extremely emotional, and at times, heartwrenching.

This was especially the case in Villasis, where we stayed in my father's ancestral home.  Remember when I mentioned that things can just "fall into place"?  This was where I got exactly what I asked for and more.  When we first arrived, there was a party waiting for us and my sister and I were met with a dizzying barrage of cousins, aunts, and uncles.  One of my younger cousins said that I looked just like his grandfather and he led me to a collection of vintage family portraits.  And he pointed to one of my paternal grandmother's brothers and smiled.  I look quite different from my siblings, and growing up I often wondered where that came from.  But looking at these pictures, I didn't need to wonder anymore.  That discovery was one of the highlights of my entire trip and visiting his grave a few days later, I was brought to tears, that perhaps his spirit could see that his likeness lives on in me.

Family picture from the 1940s.  Notice the gentleman in the top right.

So with today being All Souls' Day and yesterday All Saints' Day, I wanted to do something special on The Canary Files.  While these two days are often observed as solemn days of remembrance and reverence in many parts of the world, in the Philippines it is a national holiday and a time to celebrate.  Millions will flock to cemeteries, bringing music, games, balloons, and flowers to spend the whole day, and sometimes the whole night, with the spirits of the departed.  And whether it's at the cemetery or in their homes, a feast, not unlike Thanksgiving in magnitude, is in order.  And biko, a sweet, coconutty sticky rice cake, is almost always made for this occasion.

So even though I'm thousands of miles from those cemeteries and celebrations, this is my way of taking part.  A richly sweet and spiced sweet sticky rice garnished with a crisp caramel garnish of fried coconut milk.

Honoring not only my ancestors and the souls that went before me, but my heritage as well.

Five-Spice Black Rice Biko
Gluten-Free & Vegan

Active Prep Time: 5 minutes
Inactive Prep Time: up to 8 hours
Cooking Time: 45-60 minutes
Yield: approx. (6) 2"x2" servings

3/4 c black glutinous rice
1/4 short grain brown rice
4 c cold filtered water (for soaking)
2-2 1/2 c filtered water (for cooking)

1 c full-fat coconut milk
1 c coconut sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon five-spice powder

1.  Rinse the rice and then cover with 4 cups water to soak.  Any amount of soaking will help, but I recommend at least 4 hours, if not overnight, to help promote sticky, yet tender, rice that cooks evenly and more expediently.  If you suspect that your rice may be a little older, err on soaking longer.
2.  After soaking, drain completely.  You can either use a rice cooker at this point or a medium saucepan.  If using a rice cooker, add the water for cooking, set it and forget it.  If using a saucepan, add the water for cooking, bring to a boil, and then cover tightly and immediately reduce to a simmer over medium-low heat.  You will want the rice to absorb the water completely, which can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes.  If after that time your rice needs more water, just add what you think you may need, stir the rice, and replace the lid.
3.  While the rice is cooking, combine the coconut milk, sugar, salt, and five-spice powder in a small saucepan.  Stir to generally combine, bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer uncovered.  I treated this very much like a caramel sauce, periodically swishing the mixture instead of stirring it by moving the saucepan in a circular motion horizontally.  Keep a close eye on this, as the potential for boiling over is high.  You're looking for a deep brown color, a reduction of the mixture by at least a third, and slower moving, larger bubbles as it simmers.  This should take about 10-15 minutes.
4.  When both are finished, add the sauce to the rice and stir to combine.  Cook over medium-low heat until the rice has completely absorbed the sauce.
5.  Transfer to a serving dish and spread evenly.  It can be served immediately, but as it cools, the biko will firm up and allow you to cut it into squares.  Choose the option that will be best for your occasion and the appetite of your guests.
6.  Can be kept in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for up to 4 days.

Soaked and plumped grains.

Coconut caramel sauce making the house smell amazing.

Stirring the two together...

Cooled and ready to cut and serve.

Latik (aka Crispy Fried Coconut Curd)
Gluten-Free & Vegan

Active Prep Time: none
Inactive Prep Time: none
Cooking time: 30-45 minutes
Yield: 2-3 tablespoons latik and 2-3 tablespoons coconut oil

1 c full-fat coconut milk

1.  Bring coconut milk to a boil.  Continue stirring until it has thickened considerably and begins to look  gel-like (i.e., "goopy").  This will take 15-20 minutes.
2.  Reduce heat and continue to stir.  The milk will begin separating into oil and solids, and as you continue to cook, the solids will begin to fry in the oil.
3.  Stop cooking when solids have turned a deep golden brown and strain from oil.  Drain on a paper towel.
4.  Sprinkle as a garnish over the biko.  Also try it as a garnish for oatmeal, ice cream, waffles, or crepes.  The dark, crunchy sweetness is truly a treat.
5.  Store in the refrigerator in a lidded container for up to 5 days.

Just beginning to curdle and separate.

Strain it right before it's done.  It will continue to cook while draining.

Latik, ready to garnish.

There are many variations on biko, some with a broiled custard topping, others flavored with pandan or star anise.  I love the flavors of five-spice, and so it was a no-brainer for me to incorporate it into this take on the traditional recipe for this beloved Filipino dessert.  And the way it captures the symbolism of change was also appropriate, as my trip to the Philippines truly transformed my life, allowing me to finally think about the now in the context of the past and how that will brighten and enrich the future.

I hope you enjoy this recipe and find many special celebrations with which to share it.  And share it not only with those you love now, but also those you have loved and that have passed on.  Because they live on in our hearts, our memories, and our traditions.  And as long as we hold those close, they don't have to leave our lives and we can continue to honor them.  

After all, where would we be without them?

Cadena de amor flowers growing wild over the tombs.


  1. A wonderful post, kuya. I think that all of our relatives who've passed on can see how we live on in them. I'm sure they're always with us enjoying a good meal. Hugs

    1. I agree, ading. And discovering that connection, of where I came from, allows me to better see where I am going. :)

  2. Love this. Brought back so many memories for me. And that was even before I got to the biko. :D

    1. Lol - glad I could bring some happiness to your day, Debi. :) Maraming salamat, as always!


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