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Love at First Bite January 24, 2008

Posted by Alex Sawit in Food & Drink.
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By Alex Sawit

24 January, 2008

 

You know there’s got to be something special about a dish or beverage when loving associations are woven into the story.

The Italians, who should know a thing or two about passion, are famous for such notions, especially when it comes to sweet indulgences. While there are far too many to mention at length, I will say that my favorite is the one about Strega, that magical sweet and spicy after-dinner liqueur created (if we are to believe the legend) by the enchantment of beautiful maidens, a drink about which it is said that “when a man and woman drink Strega together, they are united forever.”

I am now reminded that we Filipinos, who have been dubbed by some as the Italians of the Orient, are equally playful with our explanations. You’ll understand what I mean if you should ever fall in love with that delicate Kapampangan treat called tibok-tibok.

 

tibok1.jpg

Traditional tibok-tibok from Pampanga topped with customary latik.

 

“This is the Filipino version of panna cotta,” proclaimed our lawyer friend, who arrived at Cyrano carrying a fresh package from Pampanga. He’s a loyal foodie, this regular of ours, always on the lookout for great goodies to bring back to the shop and share with other Cyrano friends. Curious, I opened the plastic bag whose lettering read “Susie’s Cuisine – The Best in Pampango Kakanin.” I found myself staring into a basket-style platter that was filled with a layer of white about an inch deep.

“It’s tibok-tibok,” he said, beaming with enthusiasm. “It’s like panna cotta but made with carabao’s milk.”

He cut a square-shaped serving of the snow colored dessert, topped it with cinnamon-brown latik (fried coconut milk sprinkles) and handed it to me on a plate, which I accepted with some uncertainty. Is he really comparing this to panna cotta? That classic Italian dessert just so happens to be one of the more heavenly creations to ever win the hearts of men and women – a silky smooth offering made of rich cream and popularly served with a berry, caramel or chocolate sauce.

I took a bite. Followed by another. And another.

Wow. This is velvety soft and smooth. I held my thumbs up in approval toward my friend, to whom I am now gladly indebted. This really is like panna cotta – a more rustic but exotic version to say the least. There’s a soothingly mild sweetness to it, which I was not expecting, surrounded by the buttery taste of carabao (buffalo) milk fat and with just a touch of gata (coconut cream) at the end. It’s irresistible by itself, with the latik simply a rich addition to the exquisite overall flavor. Later our friend informed us that, as good as this was, there was even better stuff to be found. The very best tibok-tibok, he says as he demonstrates his point via oscillating hand gestures, is so smooth in consistency that it jiggles like jelly when shaken.

All of this left me sorely wondering, “Why haven’t I tried this before?”

Tibok-tibok, it turns out, is the jewel in the crown among Pampanga’s kakanin (native rice sweets) treasures. This traditional pudding is made by simply cooking the purest glutinous rice flour in fresh carabao milk, with variable flavorings added depending on which family recipe is used. The name, which literally translates as “thump-thump,” originated as an onomatopoeic reference to the soft bubbling of the rice-milk mixture as it slowly reduces and thickens.

But being Filipinos, Kapampangans are a romantic people, especially when it comes to flourishing their glorious cuisine. Ask any housewife in Pampanga who makes tibok-tibok and she will tell you that the name is a re-wording of the term “tibok ng puso” (soft heartbeat), emphasizing how heart-melting this dessert can be. But she will then add that the name, appropriately enough, is also symbolic of the ‘heartfelt tenderness’ that a mother feels toward those for whom she has toiled in the kitchen – for her husband, for her sons and daughters, for her parents, even for all those relatives and guests whom she is proud to welcome inside the domain of her home. To be served tibok-tibok, therefore, is to receive her token of familial love.

I’m only too happy to agree. It’s the same beautiful narrative you’ll discover wherever good honest cooking is to be found on this earth. Whether it’s someone’s Piemontese grandmother in northern Italy or somebody’s lola in the heart of Pampanga, these stories are a wonderful reminder that good food is always food that is made with pride and love by cooks who have lots of pride and lots of love. Always.

 

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Tibok-tibok topped with Belgian chocolate fondue.

 

As rooted as tibok-tibok is in the classic tradition of Kapampangan cuisine, it doesn’t take long to realize that it lends itself easily to creative new interpretations. For starters, substitute crushed hazelnuts for the usual latik. Want something that can perfectly complement the subtle gata flavor? Try dusting it with bitter-sweet Belgian chocolate powder instead. If you’d rather offset the creaminess of the carabao milk, you could lightly sharpen it with a raspberry sauce or with thin slices of kiwi fruit. Or if you really prefer it almost plain, simply sprinkle it with the tiny specks of vanilla bean seeds. Hey, if you trust your palate, run with your creativity as far as you please.

Will you find love at first bite with this softhearted delicacy? I hope so. And I hope that, in expressing my fondness for it, I haven’t explained too much and spoiled the surprise. After all, falling in love with tibok-tibok should be like, well, falling in love. It just tastes better when you’ve been blindsided and knocked out silly.

 

 

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