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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