November 30, 2020

Let's Cook Kalamay Like It's 1949

Part 3 of AACP's Comfort Food Series

Mga Lutong Pilipino cover

By Pia Ceres

I found the cookbook by accident. I was home from college for the holidays, bored and rummaging around the house for something to read. I was surprised that I had never noticed it before: a slim paperback, a modest contrast to the thick, glossy volumes by Martha Stewart and Julia Child on my mom's bookshelf. The pages were browned and veined with age. They felt soft, more like leather than paper. The book was titled Mga Lutong Pilipino: Aklat ng Pagluluto, which roughly translates to Filipino Dishes: A Cookbook. On the cover was an illustration of a dark-haired woman in a butterfly-sleeved blouse and apron. Filipina Betty Crocker, I thought.

My mom explained that the book has been in our family since 1949. My great-grandmother, who passed when I was young, had left notes in the margins in an elegant cursive. I felt like I was holding a treasure.

Like a lot of kids of the Asian diaspora, I often struggle to feel like I have a connection to my ancestors at all. We go years without seeing our family in the Philippines. I don't know much about Philippine history. My Tagalog is really bad. But holding a cookbook that belonged to my great-grandma, that she used to nourish our family, felt like taking her hand across generations.

I asked my mom if we could try out a recipe. We picked kalamay—not because of any sentimental value, but because it looked easy and short. My mom translated it with me, and we cooked it for Noche Buena, the feast that's traditionally served after the midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The taste of sweet sticky rice and coconut reminded me of the desserts that my grandparents would buy me from the roadside stands in Nueva Ecija; of the smell of dirt after a tropical rainstorm; of the place that I left when I was a baby but that was still, as moments like this reminded me, a part of me.  

Kalamay on the table

This year, Christmas is going to look different for a lot of us. My parents and I decided that it would be safest to spend the holiday apart. I haven't hugged them since last Christmas, the last time I was home before Covid hit. But when I cook, I always make sure my mom is on speed dial so I can ask her what to do—or, more often, how do to undo what I just did wrong. And I might just try my hand at making kalamay again.

If you want to make it too, I'd recommend following this easier-to-follow recipe. But if you're feeling confident (and you have three whole coconuts just lying around), here's the original recipe from my family cookbook to yours:

Kalamay na malagkit (kah-LAH-my na ma-lahg-KIT)

Kalamay recipe in Tagalog


1 coconut

2 liters of sweet, glutinous rice flour

½ kilo of sugar

Cool the rice; once it's cooked, make a syrup of the sugar. Place the cooked rice in the syrup. Mix well. Remove from heat and set over a platter.

Slice two coconuts and grate. Cook the grated coconut in the coconut milk. Cook until it becomes a thick coconut cream.

Slice a coconut and grate it to serve on the side.