Traveling north from Manila, one finds the province of Tarlac at the center of Central Luzon’s vast, flat expanse of agricultural lands. Bounded by Pampanga in the south, Pangasinan in the north, Nueva Eciija in the east and the hilly, mountainous Zambales in the west, Tarlac is a melded province of Kapampangans, Ilocanos, Pangasinenses and Tagalogs. Tarlaquenos in the 18 towns speak either Pampango or Ilocano, depending on which geographical border they live nearest to.
Laring’s small tupig stand in the town of Tarlac, the capital, was on the sidewalk of bustling main street, F. Tanedo. Back in the 1960s, Laring sat on a small stool, with a bilao of tupig, selling her wares next to a botica (pharmacy), which was good foot traffic for street food business. Customers were patients of the town doctor, whose family owned the pharmacy. The tupig was fragrant even from afar. The aroma of sweet coconut, the fragrance of burnt banana leaves cooked over coals, lingered in the air. One could follow the trail of the scent and it led you to Laring’s tupig.
Laring’s tupig was made of simple ingredients: sweet or glutinous rice called malagkit; coconut milk; sugar. The mixture was formed into a long, flat log, wrapped in banana leaves then cooked in a makeshift oven she made herself from discarded galvanized iron. Charcoals were lit that burned above and below the tupig logs. The ingredients were common to Tarlaquenos in a province where some 305,345 hectares are allocated for rice paddies, orchards and cultivated lands for agricultural crops.
My mother-in-law visited us often with tupig from Laring. I would eagerly unwrap the warm bundle covered loosely in old newspapers. The aroma of banana leaves that had been cooked over coals would permeate through the paper. The sweet coconut scent would fill the air. I would tear open a tupig log, the burnt edges of the leaf wrapper sticking to the sticky rice. I would peel off the leafy tendrils. The burnt wisps would stick to my finger but would reveal a light green sweet rice log underneath. The longer it took to peel off the burnt leaf, the more the aroma of rice and coconut would beckon. The middle of this pale green sticky rice log would be burnt. The sides would be shiny and sweet smelling. I would bite into the chewy center. It would be hearty and filling. But the sweet rice grains would cling to my senses and I would reach for a second.
Tupig is also called intemtem. It is a popular native cake from Pangasinan. In the past, tupig was served during the holidays. It is now sold as street food. Further north in Ilocos, tupig was known as kangkanen. Sometimes it is cooked in an improvised way over the stove top encased in a flattened corrugated iron sheet.
Linguistically, tupig has the same root word as dippig meaning flat. Ilocanos cook this during All Saints Day along with other rice-based kangkanen. There are other types of tupig called tinubong using the same dough, but cooked in bamboo tubes called tubong buried in embers under the ground.
The glutinous rice in tupig is the staple food in most of Southeast Asia. Researchers found that sticky rice, lacking the starch amylose was an important part of the diet in China and Japan. Asian folklore traces the origins of glutinous rice to more than 2,000 years ago.
“Laring moved her tupig stand to the market. She kept cooking it till she was blind and died,” was the sad news I got when I searched for her tupig on a balikbayan hometown trip.
Our family remembered Laring, dark and diminutive with a piercing high-pitched voice, and her story of how she trekked the mountains of Zambales to the lowlands, having been a descendant of the aetas. She and Goydo, her husband migrated to Tarlac. They persevered, taking in janitorial jobs. Later, so did her large family. Their sons took on different jobs, from cooks to gardeners. Laring supported the family’s earnings with her tupig stand. She cooked and sold tupig from the most basic ingredient – rice and, in the process, satisfied so many in ways she perhaps never imagined.
When I found out Laring had died, I was sad that her recipe perished, too. I tried to pry the mixture out of those who knew her. “There is no recipe. Laring cooked the tupig with basic ingredients she found during harvest season,” I was told.
In my own American kitchen, I recreated tupig out of a sweet longing for the familiar sticky log. I soaked the rice malagkit overnight. The grains plumped up and I ground the wet rice for a thick galapong batter. I added coconut cream, sugar and molasses. One needed patience to shape the long log into the banana leaf. The thin log went on my outdoor charcoal grill, with embers cooking it above and below. In forty minutes, the banana leaf edges looked frayed, but the tupig inside was as magical as I remembered it to be.
Cooked sticky rice grains clung to each other, the center of the log was slightly brown, the sides held together by the charcoal cooking. The simplest things in life stay with you forever.
When I returned to Tarlac, my hometown last year, I asked again “Did anyone in Laring’s family still make tupig?”
“Send for Sidro, her son. Give him some money and he’ll make tupig for you,” I was told. In my quest for tupig and for what was familiar, I knew I only had to come home to Tarlac to find it again.
For a tupig recipe visit: http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-happy-home-cook-tupig
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “How to Cook Philippine Desserts: Cakes and Snacks” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.
More articles from Elizabeth Ann Quirino