A Chronicle of Puto

Puto, Filipino steamed rice cakes, can come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors—but putong puti is really the "blank canvas" on which other flamboyant iterations are created. ⁠

A Chronicle of Puto

Puto, Filipino steamed rice cakes, can come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors—but putong puti is really the "blank canvas" on which other flamboyant iterations are created. ⁠

by Tracey Paska

Photo by Tracey Paska

Search the web for “steamed rice cakes” and any number of mostly fluffy confections from different Asian cuisines pop up: Chinese fa gao, Vietnamese bánh bò hap, Korean jeungpyeon, Singaporean chwee kueh, Khmer num ah kor. But in the case of Filipino puto, the three-word phrase and the images of snowy, cheese-topped cupcakes that usually appear barely begin to represent it. Rather than the single treat portrayed in these images, puto is a basket of regionally diverse delicacies that are mostly steamed, are not always made of rice, and occasionally don’t fit the idea of a “cake.”

South by Southeast

Filipino puto traces back to puttu (1), a traditional South Indian breakfast dish that is made of lightly packed rice flour, layered with grated coconut, and steamed in a tube (traditionally made of bamboo). When and how it reached the Philippines is not precisely known, but a likely source is through indirect cultural diffusion via Tamil merchants and traders, who scholars believe have been a significant commercial and cultural presence in what are now Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern Thailand beginning nearly two millennia ago (2).

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