Growing up in the Philippines, I was often woken from my siesta by the rhythmic chanting of street vendors, whose voices echoed through the empty sweltering streets in the late afternoon. This is how I knew it was time for merienda, otherwise known as a meal in between meals or, you know, snack time. I used to rush to our balcony, craning my neck as if I were a giraffe, to find the street peddler. If they were close to our house, I would chant back to them. Soon after, I was rewarded with the privilege of choosing first from their warm steaming basket. Tucked inside was suman (a steamed sticky rice cake), mwasi (a boiled rice patty topped with shredded coconut and muscovado sugar), baye-baye (a mochi-like cylindrical cake made with toasted young or glutinous rice, grated coconuts, and muscovado sugar), and sometimes a version of a donut twist called bicho-bicho. It just depended on the day and the peddler’s whims.
The suman I often got from the peddler—which is the recipe I’m sharing here—is made from glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk, then wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. It’s then served hot with a generous sprinkle of muscovado sugar on top and/or with a side of sweet ripe mango. The banana leaf gives the suman a distinct tinge of green and imparts a floral scent to the rice cake.
In pre-colonial Philippines, growing rice was labor-intensive and rice was therefore largely reserved for deities, leaders, and socio-religious rituals and gatherings like harvest ceremonies or honoring ancestors. After the industrialization of agriculture, the Philippines produced more rice and the crop eventually became everyday fare to be enjoyed by all, spinning off countless rice-based dishes and snacks, including a vast array of baked, steamed, and boiled rice-based snacks called kakanin, derived from two Tagalog words: “kain” (to eat) and “kanin” (rice).
Kakanin, meanwhile, can be further broken down into subcategories, one of which is suman, which is a type of rice cake that is usually wrapped in something. There are many versions of suman, which vary among regions and even from island to island and are distinguished by the kind of wrapper used or the methods employed to cook them. You can change some of the ingredients, the wrapper, and the shape and still make something understood to be suman. There’s suman latik―sticky rice cake served with coconut caramel and curds―and suman sa lihiya, which is made with lye. On Panay Island where I was raised, we have at least three different kinds of suman: ibus (eeh-boos), which is the same sticky rice cake but wrapped in buri (palm leaves) and boiled; biko (bee-koh) made with whole rice kernels (not ground rice or rice flour) and cooked with coconut milk and brown sugar, then slathered with latik, a coconut caramel sauce, and baked (unlike most suman, biko is not wrapped in leaves, but it’s still understood by most to be a type of suman); and alupi (ah-loo-pee), which is a grated cassava suman. There’s also a suman called moron (or chocolate suman) that’s a mix of sticky rice and tablea (native chocolate).
When I was developing this recipe, it was important to me to perfect the sticky rice itself, which is the primary component. You can always jazz up the rice by adding other flavorings like ginger, chocolate, and grated coconut, but the success of this suman sinks or swims with the rice.
The key to making a good suman is soaking the rice ahead of time to help fully hydrate the grains and cut down on your cooking time. I’ve definitely burned the bottom of a pot while making suman and that’s something we want to avoid: As you cook the rice, it releases starch that will stick to the bottom and sometimes sides of the pot if not stirred constantly. When the rice burns, there’s no saving it, so make sure to mind and stir the rice at all times.
After the initial cooking of the rice, it’s spread out to cool, then cut into portions and wrapped in the banana leaves, which then get cooked again—an essential two-stage cooking process that gives the finished suman its signature sticky texture. There are multiple ways to cook the assembled suman packets, but the primary one is to steam them. When setting up your steamer, make sure you always have enough water at the bottom and check in between batches and refill as needed. I recommend letting the water come to a boil first before you add the suman to steam, so you’ll have a more accurate cooking time than if you load the whole thing up and then wait for the steam to start. If you’re adding additional water to prevent the steamer from going dry, make sure to get it up to boiling first so that you don’t drop the temperature and cut the steam off midway through cooking.
Once the suman is steamed, give it a couple of minutes to cool down before opening the banana leaf wrapper, but not long enough that it’s gone cold. It needs to have enough residual heat to slowly melt the topping of muscovado sugar, and also to provide a contrast with the cool mango. I almost always pair my suman with a cup of coffee to balance the sweet with a little bitter. You can even add a scoop of ice cream and make it suman à la mode. Beyond that, feel free to treat this sticky rice cake as your blank canvas and let your imagination go wild.
In a small bowl, combine rice and 1 quart (945ml) water. Using your hands, massage rice to make sure water gets in between each grain, then cover bowl with plastic wrap, and let soak at room temperature for 8 hours.
Using a fine-mesh strainer, drain rice, discarding the soaking water. In a 4-quart pot, combine rice with coconut milk, sugar, and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent it from sticking and scorching on the bottom, until rice is al dente, about 10 minutes.
Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray, then transfer rice mixture to prepared baking sheet, spread it in an even layer, and let cool completely. Once cool, slice into sixteen 1- by 4-inch rectangular rice cakes. Set aside.
Wash banana leaf squares with cold water then pat dry with paper towels. Working with one square at a time, hold banana leaf with tongs about 2 inches above the medium-high flame of a gas burner, turning every 3 to 5 seconds, until soft and pliable, about 15 seconds. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining banana leaves. Alternatively spread the banana leaf squares on a baking sheet and bake for 2 minutes at 500°F (260°); this stp is to help make the banana leaves more liable so they don’t crack when folded.
On a clean work surface, position one banana leaf square so it resembles a diamond with a point facing you. Set 2 rice cakes, one on top of another, horizontally in the center of the leaf. Starting with the point closest to you, fold the leaf up and over the rice cakes, tucking it in slightly underneath the top side of the rice cakes so that the rice cakes are tightly wrapped.
Fold the right and left points of the leaf over the rice cakes like an envelope (they will overlap), then roll the rice cakes up towards the top point, stopping about 2 inches short of the top point. Fold the top point in towards the center, then finish rolling to form a perfectly rectangular packet. Use butcher’s twine to tie suman at each end. Repeat with remaining banana leaf squares and rice cakes.
Fill a large pot with about 4 inches water and place the steamer insert inside (make sure water doesn’t come above steamer floor). Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Carefully arrange suman in steamer in a single even layer, cover, and steam for 1 hour, adjusting heat to maintain a good steam level and adding boiling water as needed to prevent steamer from going dry. Transfer suman to a wire rack and let cool slightly, 10 to 15 minutes.
To serve, remove twine, transfer still-warm suman to individual plates, and serve with muscovado sugar and mango (if using).
4-quart pot, rimmed baking sheet, steamer, butcher’s twine
If you can’t find Filipino long-grain (malagkit) sticky rice, you can use short-grain sticky rice (a.k.a. glutinous or sweet rice). There are several varieties of sweet glutinous rice that can be used as a substitute.
Fresh or frozen banana leaves can be purchased at Asian markets and online. To store unused fresh banana leaves, wrap tightly in plastic, transfer to a zipper-lock bag, and freeze for up to 3 months. If using frozen banana leaves, defrost in the refrigerator overnight before using.
If your steamer is not large enough to fit all the suman, you can either steam in batches, set up two side-by-side steamers to cook the suman at once, or use a stacking bamboo steamer.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Steamed suman can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 3 months. To reheat in the microwave, cover with a damp paper towel and microwave for 1 minute.