25 June 2010

Something Like Suman

I love looking through my mom's many cookbooks.  Her collection is so much more varied and extensive than my own--understandable for a woman who has been cooking since childhood--and certainly reflects the time and place of her upbringing.  The Hawaiian spirit that lives in my mom is apparent in the large number of spiral-bound cookbooks from Oahu she keeps; some are decades-old compilations of recipes my mom purchased while still living in Hawaii years ago, while others are relatively new books sent by my aunt, who still lives there.  Most are the results of compiling recipes from the local community, usually to benefit a church, women's league, or other group, into something that indeed mirrors that communal attitude toward food.  These unique books are wonderful sources of nostalgia for my parents that also happen to produce some tasty, home-style eats.

I recently borrowed one of the books my aunt sent to my mom, titled Unbearably Good! Mochi Lovers' Cookbook (1999), a collection of recipes compiled by Teresa A. DeVirgilio-Lam.  The theme, of course, is mochi, a glutinous rice cake; each recipe utilizes either glutinous, "sticky" rice (mochigome) or glutinous rice flour (mochiko).  There are both sweet and savory items available, which all form a pan-Asian representation of culinary influences.  I borrowed the book with the intention of making suman, Filipino rice cakes that are traditionally created by steaming a rice and coconut mixture in banana leaves.  This particular recipe, however, was not like those traditional ones I had seen for suman, as it looked more like a shortcut for making a batch meant to feed a typically large gathering.  There are no banana leaves and no steaming involved.  Instead, after cooking and mixing the few ingredients together, the concoction is spread into a greased pan, then left to cool and set before cutting it into individual portions.  As pleasantly simple as this process undoubtedly sounds, when I read the recipe, I could not help but wonder how I could tweak it to make something at least a little more like the banana leaf-bundled cakes I enjoy.

I considered going ahead with taking the extra steps to wrap the rice in greased banana leaves and steam them, but opted against it, lured by the appeal of the single-pan method.  But to change it up, I halved the recipe--the original sounded like it would make much more than my family could reasonably consume--pre-soaked the rice before cooking it; incorporated some toasted, unsweetened, finely grated coconut (fresh that had been frozen); topped the mixture with brown sugar; put it into a banana leaf-lined pan; and briefly broiled the whole thing.  The coconut bits add more texture and coconut flavor, the top of the cake caramelizes, and the banana leaves impart some of its distinctive flavor (as it does in the traditional steamed suman).  The alterations were not difficult at all, and I think it's worth for someone who wants to make a quick version of this rice treat that doesn't seem too generic.
Shortcut Suman (adapted from an Unbearably Good! Mochi Lovers' Cookbook recipe) (printable recipe)
Yields 15-20 servings

2 1/2 c mochigome (Japanese sweet rice), rinsed and soaked in water for 4 hours or more
2 1/2 c water
1/2 c finely grated, unsweetened coconut
1 c brown sugar, divided
1 c coconut milk (light is fine)
Pinch of salt (optional)
Banana leaf, to cover 11x7x1.25" brownie pan
Mildly-flavored oil, for the pan

Drain the mochigome, put it in a pot with the water, and cook it over high heat until it begins to boil.  Reduce to low heat, cover, and cook until the water has mostly evaporated and the rice is cooked through (approximately 20 minutes).

Lightly oil the brownie pan.  Wilt the banana leaf by passing it carefully over a low flame.  Arrange the leaf so that it covers the bottom and sides of the pan, trimming any excess.  In a small, dry pan over low heat, carefully toast the grated coconut until it is golden brown, then set aside.

In a large pot, bring the coconut milk to a simmer, then add 3/4 cup of the brown sugar (reserve the rest for topping the cake), and pinch of salt, if using.  Simmer for five minutes, then add the cooked rice and toasted coconut, stirring to combine.  Cook over low heat for an additional five minutes, stirring occasionally.

Set your oven's broiler to high.  Pour the rice mixture into the prepared pan, pressing it down firmly into an even layer.  Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup of brown sugar over the cake as evenly as possible.  Place the pan directly under the broiler, two to three inches below it, and broil for five to 10 minutes, until the sugar only slightly caramelizes; watch the suman carefully, so that neither the leaf nor cake burns.  Allow the suman to cool and set before cutting it into squares.  You can cover and keep the suman at room temperature--refrigerating it will make the rice hard, although you can always microwave individual portions--to enjoy this sticky, sweet treat for a few days...should you not devour it by then.
*UPDATE 03/26/12: It only recently occurred to me that this method of baking the sweetened, coconut-flavored rice mixture is essentially the same as making biko. Perhaps covering the rice with another banana leaf and omitting the broiling step would be make for something more suman-like (I haven't tried this yet, but if anyone does, let me know how it works).


Thanks for reading! Your comments are always welcome and appreciated. :)