The Crew Can Have a Little Coconut Cake

My name comes from a language I can’t speak. My mother, who grew up in Cotabato City in the southern Philippines, knows five languages, including Tagalog (taught at school), Ilocano (from her parents), a mash-up of Ilonggo and Cebuano (from the housekeepers) and Chabacano (from the neighbors). But English is the only one we share.

We didn’t eat much Filipino food at home when I was a child in Honolulu, beyond chicken adobo and, on special occasions, leche flan with its pooling caramel. My father, a pubkeeper’s son from Liverpool, England, was the cook; when my mother arrived in the United States as a bride, armed with a degree in chemistry, she didn’t even know how to make rice. She planned to name me Anne-Marie, then found out that my father, without consulting her, had written “Ligaya” on my birth certificate: in Tagalog, “happiness.” (“Ligaya” is also the title of a 1993 hit by the Filipino rock band Eraserheads, with the infamous line “Gagawin ko ang lahat pati ang thesis mo,” which translates as “I’ll do everything for you, even your thesis,” a declaration of love that perhaps makes sense only in a culture so insistent on the pursuit of education.)

I moved to New York with a handful of Filipino words — essentials, like salamat (thank you), kanin (cooked rice) and ay nako (sometimes “oh my,” sometimes just an exasperated sigh). I used to joke that my mother could always find another Filipino, wherever she was, and within minutes they’d be fast friends. Inevitably they’d turn out to be distantly related; the cousins multiplied. But if I heard Tagalog in my new city, it was only in passing. I’d see Filipinos on the street and feel like an impostor. Did they see me, too?

Then I met the Filipino Canadian poet J. Mae Barizo, who introduced me to the Filipino American poet Sarah Gambito, who in turn invited me to a gathering at her home of Filipino artists, writers and filmmakers. She called it the Soul Pood Salon, a wink at how native speakers often pronounce the letter “f” like a “p.” Everyone was asked to bring a dish for merienda — in Spanish, an afternoon snack, but in the Philippines, any eating outside regular mealtimes, which happens to be when I like to eat best.

In this case it was a feast, the table crowded with the likes of adobo; leek fried rice; ginisang ampalaya, bitter melon hustled in a pan with shrimp, eggs and tomatoes; bistek, steak seared with onion rings, then christened in a hot bath of soy sauce and calamansi (a fruit akin to lemon-​lime, but smaller and more tart). There were as many sweet things as savory, like ensaymadas, soft, yolk-rich brioche buns loaded with butter, sugar and cheese, and suman, sticky cakes of rice cooked in coconut milk until it’s as swollen as risotto.

We all talked at once. We ate plate after plate. No one seemed to mind if I said the names of dishes wrong. I didn’t know what a barkada was — a group of friends, or as my mother puts it, “your gang” — until I had one.

The mini bibingkas showed up later, at a book party for “Loves You,” Gambito’s 2019 poetry collection, which almost doubles as a cookbook. (The opening poem is half recipe, instructing: “Invite at least 15 people. It’s okay if your apartment is small,” and ending, “Serve with so much white rice.”) I was already familiar with the glory of bibingka, a cake traditionally made with rice flour and coconut milk and baked to supreme fluffiness over banana leaves in a terra-cotta oven. But I’d never seen it so dainty, built to fit in the palm of the hand and be devoured in three bites. Each little cake came with a frill of banana leaf and a whiff of its clean, green-tea scent, and was topped with half-melted opalescent strands of macapuno, the jellylike flesh of prized mutant coconuts.

Gambito got them from the baker Ray Luna, who had trained as a nurse — like many Filipino immigrants to the United States, and somewhat unwillingly; “Oh, great, I’m going to be a stereotype,” he recalls with a laugh — before opening the coffee shop Mountain Province in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2013. He adapted his recipe from a version by his lola (grandmother), using self-rising flour instead of rice flour and coconut cream for extra richness. It was the first Filipino dessert he put on the menu, when he was the lone baker in the kitchen. “The easiest to make in a pinch,” he said.

Mountain Province almost weathered the pandemic. It closed this February. Luna is a nurse once more, tending to cancer patients. I asked if he might share his recipe, so I could bring bibingka the next time I see the barkada. He was happy to share — “to give immortality,” he said, “to a recipe that might otherwise be forgotten.”

Recipe: Mini Bibingka

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