Bibingka may be available year round these days but it reclaims its special significance when December rolls in. Stalls serving the traditional Filipino rice cake during the Christmas season have become a part of the tableau during the traditional nine-day dawn masses. Clay ovens warm up the cold early mornings as families crowd the stalls for their share of this delicacy (and its partner, the purple-hued puto bumbong) after the mass.
Made from a batter of galapong (glutinous ground rice), eggs, sugar and coconut milk, the bibingka is placed on a banana leaf-lined pan and baked in a clay oven with coals underneath and on top of a metal cover. The bibingka is topped with kesong puti (native white cheese), itlog na maalat (salted duck’s eggs), butter, and sugar depending on the recipe of the cook and it's served with grated coconut.
The name "bibingka" is similar to the Indian dessert bebinca from the state of Goa. The latter is made with flour, coconut milk, sugar, egg yolks, ghee or clarified butter and almonds. Aside from Goa, the bebinca is also common in Macau and East Timor, all of which, like Goa, were Portuguese colonies. Aside from the name, both cakes are similarly cooked with heat on top and bottom. But unlike the Philippine bibingka, the Goan bebinca is a layered dessert wherein each layer must be cooked first before the next one is added (like the way we cook our sapin-sapin). Their bebinca is made with flour instead of glutinous rice though a nineteenth century Indian cookbook lists rice flour as an ingredient.
In The Oxford Companion to Food which mentions the cuisine of Goa, Alan Davidson remarks that food accounts from Goa always mention bebinca but without direct connection to the Filipino bibingka. Historian Rachel Laudan traces the trail of the bibingka to Goa but in the above Indian cookbook it's called "Bibinca dosee, or Portuguese Cocoanut Pudding." I suspect that the common denominator is the Portuguese influence and each country added its own take on it.
Still, we cannot discount the fact that like our biko, the term bibingka may also be Chinese in origin. Anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel, as mentioned in The Governor General's Kitchen, relates the rice cake’s name to its root word "bi," which in Romanized Mandarin (Pinyin) means "unripe grain." Bibingka is also used in naming other rice cakes such as bibingkang cassava and bibingkang malagkit.
A good bibingka is one that is fragrant with the scent of banana leaves and rice, tender but firm and moist, fluffy and "maumbok" or "matambok." The flavor is a harmony of sweet (sugar, butter) and savory (salted eggs and kesong puti), like a choir singing a Christmas carol. To some, the little burnt edges complete the bibingka experience.
Here are some of the best places where you can satisfy your bibingka craving in Metro Manila.
10. Lourdes Church
Corner of Kanlaon St. and N.S. Amoranto Ave. (formerly Retiro), Sta. Mesa Heights, Quezon City
On the side of Lourdes Church in Retiro is a row of bibingka stalls. About six bibingkahans await parishioners with their delicacies, each with their own recipe. Some of them may be mediocre, flat, and enlivened with yellow food coloring, so your best bet is to look around first before settling on a stall. All stalls sell their goods at P35. The ones I tried were made at Marlon's toward the end of the row-salted egg slices were neatly strewn on top while the rice dough is tastier and just sweet enough compared to Yolly's (recommended to me by a tout) which was almost like a bland pancake.
9. Sweet Tomato Grill
G/F St Luke's Medical Center, #279 E. Rodriguez Sr. Ave., Baranggay Kalusugan, Quezon City
The Bibingka Deliciosa (P130) at St. Luke's Sweet Tomato Grill is best for those with a super sweet tooth. With an even golden brown on top and a positively moist texture, the taste reminds me of a cassava bibingka. But for the price and name, I wish there were more kesong puti and salted eggs than the six strands sprawled on top.