The cultural importance of sugar in the Philippines

Patupat is an extremely sweet rice delicacy that originated from Ilocos region, in northern Philippines.

A few days ago, my neighbor, as a way of celebrating the easing of the lockdown, cooked a rice delicacy called patupat. Native to the Ilocos region, in northern Philippines, patupat consisted of sticky rice and coconut placed inside a heart-shaped basket made of young palm leaves and then submerged in boiling sugar cane juice. The rice cooks gently absorbing the flavors of the coconut and sugar. It is an extremely sweet treat, and I am glad my Ilocana neighbor shared it with me. It was my first time to try patupat, and surely it won't be the last. It became an instant favorite.

The sugar rush made me think of how sugar plays an important part of our lives and culture. It is addicting that many experts believe that it is as addictive as cocaine, and many ailments are attributed to sugar consumption from diabetes to hypertension. Despite the keto diet craze, sugar is a habit we can't just get rid of. For as long as culture thrives, sugar will be a part of it.

In most parts of the world, 97 percent of sugar is derived primarily from sugar cane, a species of tall grasses with fibrous stalks that are rich in sucrose. Sugar cane is native to Southeast Asia and New Guinea, although it is now cultivated in other parts of the globe like Brazil and India. Sugar can also be extracted from beets, coconut and acacia.

Filipinos love sugar. There is a wide assortment of local desserts and confections called kakanin consisting of sticky rice, sugar, coconut, pandan, some tropical fruits and even chocolate. We also inherited recipes from our Spanish colonizers that call for substantial amounts of sugar, from pastillas to tocino del cielo. Even Filipino savory food is sweet. One of the most popular breakfast food is sweetened chicken meat, beef or pork called tocino. The Filipino version of the spaghetti also utilizes sweet banana catsup and several spoonful of sugar. Some even add condensed milk to their spaghetti sauce to achieve a sweet and creamy sauce.

In my native Maguindanaon, one of many diverse ethnolinguistic groups in Mindanao, southern Philippines, sugar cane and its resulting sugar are used in many cultural practices. In the baptism ritual or antiak, the pandita feeds the infant a few granules of sugar. The burnt aroma of sugar mixed with an herb, tree bark or resin is used as incense. Sugar can be moistened and rubbed on the skin to reduce itch.

Sugar cane is used in the final ritual of the ipat called kapedtimbas sa lalag. It can also be peeled and sliced into two-inch long stubs to chew on, an early form of candy that I loved better than the store bought tira-tira which is a sugar confection.

A high value crop, sugar cane is native to Southeast Asia and New Guinea that is now cultivated in other parts of the globe. Photo by Jah Cordova/Pixabay

In the olden days, the color of sugar also informed social status. The affluent used the more expensive white sugar or mamis a maputi, while the lower class used red sugar or mamis a maliga (sometimes called segunda a mamis denoting its second class rank). It turned out that mamis a maliga is the healthier version because it is raw and unrefined retaining much of the sugar cane's nutrients. A lot of people has switched to it in recent years.

A more unrefined sugar that retains a darker color containing molasses and has larger granules is called gulapasil or jaggery. It can be a coffee sweetener but much preferred as a sugar dip for fried bananas or rice delicacies. However, the first byproduct of the refinement process is called sanggaka which is packed and formed into blocks or round shapes. It is very dark, gooey and has a strong aroma.

When a poor family cannot afford infant formula milk, a substitute is one part sugar diluted in about ten parts water which is called simbog. In the absence of meat or vegetable viands, brown sugar is eaten with rice.

Gula (which is by the way the Malay word for sugar) is the Maguindanaon term for a thick syrup that is used in many traditional delicacies.

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