THE husband and I felt a little sheepish when we turned up for the first of the nine-day dawn masses preceding Christmas, and the church gates were not yet open. We looked around, hoping to see other early birds.
No one was as eager to prematurely leave their beds. We started feeling foolish. Then, as the fog cleared, we saw familiar figures: the “puto bumbong” sellers.
A middle-aged woman, an older woman who could be her mother or sister, and a girl who could be her daughter or younger sister sold this delicacy on weekends from a small table outside the church gates.
A nearby mall has food vendors and a native restaurant selling the same thing. But the husband and I favor the trio selling outside the church. Their puto bumbong is to be experienced.
It is a joy to watch the three women. Their routine: the woman heats the “lansungan (native steamer), stuffs the protruding “bumbong (bamboo tube)” with the brownish purple “pirurutong” sticky rice, and prods out later with a metal chopstick four purple rolls that she lines up to make one steaming cake.
She passes on the rice cake to the older woman, who applies margarine and grated coconut. This lady pushes the white, yellow and purple cake in its bed of banana leaf to the girl, who sprinkles muscovado (unrefined sugar from sugar cane juice) before wrapping close the banana leaf. The girl accepts the P40 payment for each puto bumbong with muscovado.
Once, when we came too early for a Saturday mass, we looked for something to eat and chanced upon the puto bumbong seller. The woman was alone then. The garish yellow of the margarine turned me off, and I bought only one puto bumbong for the husband. I later regretted my choice of cotton candy when I ended up eating more than half of the puto bumbong I bought for him.
I expected the puto bumbong to be cloying in its three-layered coat of margarine, coconut and sugar. But in my first bite of puto bumbong, no single flavor stood out. There was a hint of coconut milkiness, a bit of margarine saltiness. Overwhelming was the warmth and smoothness of the “kakanin,” which explains why this native delicacy rivals the homily as the greater draw for “simbang gabi” in these parts.
The taste is hardly the best about this puto bumbong. When I bought that first one, I was the lady’s sole customer as it was still too early for the Saturday afternoon mass. On Sundays, when churchgoers mill around due to the series of masses, the wait for the puto bumbong can be long as a customer usually orders several pieces to take home.
But whether you are alone or waiting in line, the routine is the same. The steaming of the rice flour is quick but it must burn the woman’s hands to shake one bumbong after another to slide out the purple rolls. The older woman arranges the rolls so these form a pleasing symmetry before she bastes them with yellow and white. The sprinkling of grated coco is generous, falling on the glistening purple stickiness like snowflakes. Warming its casing of banana leaf, the puto bumbong emits a comforting aroma that goes well with the nip of air at this elevation.
We may be all strangers standing around, waiting for our orders to be served, but it seems as if we have gone back to being children, standing wide-eyed in the family kitchen, anticipating some ritual to be over so we can hav
And wise as he is, the priest who celebrated the first of the dawn masses in this parish, pointed out in his homily that as the soul is nourished at mass, the flesh, too, must have its reward, even if some waiting is entailed as purple is steamed for what must be on earth the closest to heavenly reward.
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s December 21, 2014 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column