Sugar Talk Sugar Talk
Sugar in Filipino cuisine
While in 2005 the Philippines was the ninth largest sugar producer in the world, by 2021 its position had fallen to 43rd, producing 1.8m tonnes in 2022-23 compared to 2.4m tonnes only eight years earlier. Despite its long-held dominance—until recently—of the country’s agricultural markets, sugar wasn’t produced or manufactured on a large scale until 15th century colonial times, when it quickly found its place at the heart of the country’s cuisine.
History, culture and influences
Prehistoric immigrants to the Philippine archipelago brought techniques for growing cane with them, and there’s evidence of small-scale sugar cane cultivation in the region from as long ago as 3500 BCE. Despite cane being available locally, sugar was one of the first things Spanish members of the first permanent expedition to the islands in 1565 requested in supply shipments from Mexico.
Curiously, the people of the Philippines are called ‘Filipinos’ (with an ‘F’ instead of a ‘Ph’) because the name of the country is anglicised, going back to the Spanish conquest in the name of King Philip II of Spain in the 16th century, but the name of its people is not. While the spelling of the name of the country has probably been kept for political reasons, the term ‘Filipino’ is spelt as it sounds.
To this day, nobody knows exactly how sugar technology arrived on the nation’s shores, enabling the country to eventually become a top ten global producer and exporter of sugar, but it’s likely that Spanish friars played a large role when they set up the first plantations in the seventeenth century.
A kind of unrefined cane sugar, called panocha, crystallised in coconut shells with the aid of lime water, is still made today in the countryside and may date back to these early times. Recognisable by its bowl shape, locals break up this local variation of Jaggery into small pieces to sweeten tea.
Chocolate for breakfast: Champorado
Champorado or ‘tsampurado’ is a sweet chocolate rice porridge made with sticky rice and ‘tablea’: a chocolate disk made of ground-up cacao beans. Although it traces its roots back to the Mexican ‘champurrado’, the Filipino version has adapted to Chinese influences. The present-day recipe uses sticky rice instead of the corn masa its Spanish equivalent has.
Most cooks recommend using dark soft brown sugar for the sweetener to support the richness and depth of flavour brought by the cacao.
This decadent chocolate porridge is traditionally served for breakfast or a midday snack with tuyo (salted dried fish) to balance the sweetness with saltiness. Filipinos also enjoy it with a side of pandesal (Filipino bread).
Kalamay Hati: the sticky dessert found in every region
Kalamay hati—a sticky Filipino rice cake—is made from glutinous rice flour, dark cane muscovado sugar to provide the golden-brown hue, and coconut cream. A special treat in the Philippines, you can see it on the table on special occasions like national holidays and town fiestas. The secret of a thick, sticky and gooey Kalamay hati—usually eaten for breakfast—is cooking it on a low heat and stirring it constantly.
Kalamay is the Filipino word for sugar, so this dish doesn’t skimp on it. While it’s usually eaten alone, its intense sweetness means it’s also used as a sweetener for other Filipino desserts and beverages. Nearly every region in the Philippines has its own version of kalamay hati: the Tagalog version is served as a flat disk on banana leaves, while Bohol kalamay from the island of Bohol is served inside coconut shells, sealed shut with red crepe paper.
Waiting for the Taho man
Early in the morning or in the late afternoon in towns and cities in the Philippines, you can hear the call for this sweet tofu dessert. Vendors shouting ‘Taho’ wheel their carts up and down the streets of urban neighbourhoods, selling this snack made of three ingredients: soft tofu, arnibal (sugar syrup) and sago (tapioca balls).
Originating in China and finding its way to Manila by way of Chinese traders, Taho is usually eaten as a light breakfast or sweet afternoon snack in tiny snack-sized portions. The dark rich colour of the sauce comes from the arnibal (the Tagalog word for sugar syrup), which is made from unrefined cane sugar. Filipinos like to drizzle it on top of shaved ice, rice pudding, oatmeal, porridge or any dessert that needs a bit of extra sweetening.
There’s no doubt that the Filipino palate has been shaped by all things sweet, thanks to— at least in some part—the nation’s place as one of the world’s biggest sugar producers. While the Philippines may no longer produce or export the amount of sugar it used to, sweetness has remained at the centre of Filipino food culture.