On coal and steam, bibingka and puto bumbong define Filipino holidays

Bibingka and puto bumbong makers continue to fuel our Christmas spirit despite challenges brought by the pandemic.

It’s a cool December dawn—sleepy heads emerge from churches after Simbang Gabi. But breaths of fresh steam awaken the dreary crowd. At their stalls, every ingredient and gadget is lined in military precision. Diligent workers command the fire on the stoves to prepare the day’s batch of sweets; the scent of toasted rice, cheese, and young coconut soon follow.  

Curious onlookers are treated to the sight of freshly made bibingka and puto bumbong. These sweets are associated with the Simbang Gabi tradition because of their origin. An article by NOLISOLI mentions that kakanin vendors saw the opportunity to sell breakfast for farmers who needed to tend to their crops after the morning mass. Centuries after, the tradition lived on and these rice cakes became mainstays during the holidays. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for sellers to deliver these confections. Gone are the bibingka and puto bumbong vendors who await hungry churchgoers and craving seekers. However, the ease of lockdown restrictions slowly helped businesses bring back these beloved Christmas staples. 

The art of patience

On a busy hill in Santa Maria, Bulacan lies a pop-up branch of Sotero’s Bibingka, Putobumbong atbp.. Jennifer Labian, one of the branch’s workers, reveals that their stall opened last October. After painting margarine on a steaming batch of puto bumbong, she shares that there are other Sotero’s branches in and out of Bulacan, “Madaming franchise doon sa Meycauayan. Marikina yata meron na rin, tapos, Malolos [‘yung original].” 

(There are many franchises in Meycauayan. I think they’ve expanded to Marikina, then the original is in Malolos.)

Afterward, Labian meticulously pours every crumb of purple galapong in the cylindrical molds like a professional. She carefully places them on the gas burner and leaves them to steam. After a few minutes, the freshly made puto bumbong is ready to be topped with margarine and young coconut. Of course, these skills didn’t develop overnight; Labian reveals she trained in the Malolos branch just in time for the opening of the Santa Maria location. 

While Sotero’s pop-up branches sell their confections in-person, other sellers have gone online to have a wider reach. “Puto Project started in October 2020,” says Puto Project owner Faith Sy. She wanted to “share great quality, traditionally homemade, [and enjoyable] kakanin” as a way of providing buyers with comfort during the pandemic. 

However, the business owner notes that puto bumbong was a recent addition to their menu, just in time for the holidays. “Puto bumbong is a staple for the Filipino tongue,” Sy professes, “and we could not resist leaving it out of our menu as it is evidently another Filipino comfort food!” While she can’t reveal the specifics of Puto Project’s cooking procedures and recipes, Sy confirms that their methods are a unique blend of traditional techniques and modern-day innovations. 

Holiday rush

Despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, these confections still end up on people’s stomachs. Sy believes that Puto Project’s online setup is an integral aspect in keeping the business afloat. She quickly learned that customers like to “see content that gives them assurance of a business with delicious products [and] prioritizes great, credible service.” 

Sotero’s pop-up branch in Santa Maria, meanwhile, maintains a smaller reach, but is nonetheless a hit among those who live nearby. While they’d usually sell out 70 to 80 pieces of puto bumbong and close to 400 bibingkas a day, “Hindi parehas ‘yung kita [araw-araw].” On some days, the store’s combined revenue amounts to P8,000 to P10,000; on busier instances, it can climb up to P14,000 a day.

(Our sales are not the same every day.)

In those busier instances, taking a breather may not always be an option. Labian shares that the store’s peak hours are from 5 to 8:30 pm and manpower is needed to tend to all its customers. “Kapag ganoong oras, hindi na [kami nagpapahinga]. Mga 2 pm lang [pwede] kasi [bibili na] ang [mga] tao,” she shares. Hours before that, she sees to it that she gets ample rest before the evening.

(During those hours, we don’t take breaks anymore. We can only do so at 2 pm because people start to buy later in the day.)

Sy shares the same sentiments, acknowledging how hectic the holidays can get. The influx of online orders may be strenuous to keep up with, but she says a few days of rest is enough to replenish her energy for the coming week. “Last Christmas, I’d take [one to two] days off in order to rest myself and prepare for those upcoming [six or seven] days of busyness,” she expresses, ensuring that they’re able to churn out deliveries in a jiffy. 

As Christmas staples, however, a sudden drop in bibingka and puto bumbong sales after the season is inevitable. It is why Sotero’s only operates at this time of the year. “Pinapa-assign lang kami [sa mga branch],” Labian stresses, with their store planning to close in January. She is unsure if the branch will revive during the next holiday season, but she is hopeful that they’ll be able to make ends meet.

(We are assigned to our branches.)

Only time will tell whether Puto Project’s puto bumbong will also be around after December. “We have plans to continue selling it beyond the Christmas season, but we are waiting to see how it does,” Sy divulges. But because it is primarily a puto business, it can simply shift its focus from sweet to more savory options.

Of greater significance

Bibingka and puto bumbong are more than just seasonal specialties on the Christmas table. Kakanin during feasts embody our native spirituality, which is an inherent part of Filipino culture and history. For others like Sy, these desserts also take on a more personal meaning. “I remember going on dates with my mom at a young age and she’d order puto bumbong, which is one of her most favorite Filipino desserts,” she recalls. As a holiday that celebrates the importance of friends and family, a bite of these treats alone can bring people closer. 

In particularly distressing times—especially the last two years—we turn to the simple things to uplift our moods. 

The feelings of assurance and togetherness make enjoying these rice cakes sweeter. But it is the reason why vendors persevere in spite of all the uncertainties they face; what bibingka and puto bumbong each represents to us far outweighs any monetary concern. Above all else, these people help keep the Filipino Christmas spirit alive. 

Magz Chin

By Magz Chin

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By Marypaul Jostol

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