The next time you eat that heart-shaped rice wrapped in coconut leaves, thank women like Alejandra Santander.
The 63-year old from Pagadian City is among the vanishing breed of makers of “puso”, a type of street food fare that is popular in Visayas and Mindanao, but is now slowly making its way to the sidewalks of Manila and elsewhere in Luzon.
Commonly known as “hanging rice” suspended on long ends of coconut leaves sold in eateries and ambulant food carts, the triangular-shaped baskets the size of an adult’s fist is filled with rice and steam-cooked.
Puso can be had using cutleries, but the best way to really enjoy it is when you eat “kinamot” style or by hand with your choices of provenders — grilled fish, pork liempo, chicken, and even fish paste or bagoong.
Cooking puso is easy; weaving the coconut leaves into a tight rice receptacle is, however, an entirely different and tough chore.
“You need to practice many, many times. Weaving puso is hard, especially to the impatient,” Santander said in mixed Cebuano and Filipino as she prepares young coconut leaves and a stainless bowl for the finished products resting on top of a bamboo table.
Santander works as a kitchen helper at the restaurant of the agri-tourism park and farm Yamang Bukid in Bacungan village in Puerto Princesa City.
The restaurant at Yamang Bukid specializes in local and regional dishes, and workers like Santander who know how to make and cook puso are significant to the goal of sustaining the presence of Filipino food culture and traditions.
“I was asked by a neighbor who has been working in the farm that they’re looking for a puso-maker and since I was the only one who fits the bill, I was hired,” she recalled.
The young coconut leaves she is using are called “udlot” in Cebuano, Santander said while straightening and readying them for the first puso.
Udlot is usually preferred by seasoned weavers like her as they are more flexible and easier to enlace.
Young fronds, she pointed out, means longer shelf life for the puso.
Santander explained that a cooked puso can last up to a week, depending on the tightness and the age of the woven leaves.
Many street food aficionados have praised puso for its practicality and distinctive taste, which they attribute to the organic compounds purportedly present on the leaves and the supposed aroma it exudes when cooked.
Its origin is said to be pre-Hispanic, with early Filipinos in the south using rice put into intricately woven pouches as offering to their ancestral gods.
For weavers like Santander, learning the craft was borne out of extreme poverty and grave abuse which is sadly endemic in extended Filipino families.
“I was first taught how to make puso by my aunt at the age of ten,” Santander, who lived with relatives since she was young, remembers. “I had to learn or else she would not let me eat for the day.” Her aunt would sell the puso to the market.
Since the family’s staple was corn, Santander would make puso for sale in school, and snitch some of the rice cakes for herself.
When she married in her twenties, she helped her husband raise money for the family by selling puso. In 1977, the family left Pagadian for Palawan, a year after the city was heavily devastated by the great Moro Gulf earthquake and tsunami.
The Santanders settled in Bacungan village, in Puerto Princesa; her husband got a job in a logging company then operating in the island-province. Aside from selling puso, she also doubled her income by weaving bamboo matting (sawali).
Now, Santander trains a handful of fellow workers on puso-making.
“We have to train the young because there are no longer many of us who know this craft,” she said.
Like everything else in life, the way to making the best puso is patience and a heart to learn, she added.