“Gaya gaya, puto maya!” is a childish rhyme that was popular when I was in grade school. It means copycat where I came from – you get teased with this when you get busted copying something. But most of us have no idea what a “puto maya” looks like. I don’t — until a vendor offered to sell me one in Cebu four years ago. I’ve always thought that it was some kind of “puto” — bread-like, soft, best with cheese, perfect with coffee — to my surprise, it was not.
The Filipino “puto maya” is sticky rice, steamed in coconut milk. You can have one in Dumaguete’s public market, served in small plastic plates, elsewhere, in some kind of “suman wrap” that helps seals in the flavor. It’s closer to “biko” than the common “puto”.
Last year, I came across the Malay version called “putu mayam“. This laid out to me that the “puto maya” we know had an origin unknown to us. Interesting is that while this “putu mayam” is considered a Malaysian delicacy, it actually traces its origin to the Tamils. So their version, like ours, is an offshoot from original. Now that’s fascinating. Tamil are people that came from South India and some parts of Sri Lanka.
This little food discovery led me to the conclusion that I know little about the history of Filipino cuisine. Food preparation are fascinating cultural adaptations that our ancestors acquired from series of migration and conquest. Food, like us, are products of history — discovering these little nuances is a humbling experience. A reminder that history has a history and that we owe what we have today from the past.
Interesting is that most of our traditions are bound to disappear — except the way we prepare our food. The costumes, dances, songs, literature, even language, they’ll end at some point but not food. This makes food an important element in our distinct identity as people.
I have yet to find a book that looks into the history of Filipino food — ala Doreen Fernandez — someone that would delve deep into the history of our cuisine — how they came to be and their meaning. I hope someone picks up after Doreen. There’s a lot of things have yet to uncover and understand.
Heck, I thought “puto” was us Filipino injecting our naughty bits in naming food. So it’s not from “puto” (slang for a male whore) but “putu” the Malaysian rice cake.