Filipino ingenuity is not limited to the traditional craftsmanship seen in the country’s finest architecture, fashion, films, and literature. In its most basic form, it permeates everyday life, particularly in the resourcefulness of wrapping food.
Aside from keeping the food fresh and preventing it from going bad, food wrapping adds appeal to the products—especially when sold—as it first catches the eyes of the consumers. Quality food wrapping conveys a sense of quality and care, one that influences the perception of the product’s overall value: one that makes it sellable.
Different Kinds of Traditional Food Wrappings in the Philippines
While plastic and synthetic packaging have become the primary choice for modern food wrappings, the Philippines boasts a rich tradition of using natural and traditional materials for food wrapping. Not only do these traditional food wraps help preserve the quality of the food, but they also embody the connection between the cuisine and the place’s cultural heritage. This practice narrates a story that adds flavor to the culinary experience, reflecting a deeper connection to the land and its people.
Here are some of the beautifully crafted traditional food wrappers, packaging, and containers in the Philippines.
A visit to the ‘Queen City of the South’ is never complete without having a taste of the province’s iconic hanging rice. Wrapped in woven palm leaves, this method of casing rice adds a distinct flavor to the staple, which is often paired with meat, like barbecue.
Pusô is also served in other regions in Visayas and Mindanao, with designs varying from one region to another, like the kinasing (diamond-shaped), binaki (frog-like), binosa (wine glass-like), manan-aw (orchid), and minanok (chicken-like).
Another variation of this pusô is Capiz, the tinigib (chisel-like). Woven from the young palm of nipa, this pusô is made from hulled glutinous rice and cooked in freshly gathered tuba sang nipa (nipa palm toddy), which makes it syrupy, thick, and sweet, akin to biko. Ilocos also has this type of rice delicacy called patupat or sinambong. However, theirs is made from glutinous rice cooked in sugarcane juice.
Banana leaves are probably one of the most common food wrappers in the Philippines. There’s an abundance of supply that’s accessible and cost-effective, not to mention eco-friendly. These are also moisture-resistant and have heat-resistant properties, making them ideal for preserving the freshness and quality of the food.
Apart from puto, suman, budbod, and sinaing na isda, banana leaves find additional use in Maguindanao and Maranao regions for wrapping their famous on-the-go delicacy known as pastil/pastel. Comprising cooked rice topped with sautéed shredded meat (beef, chicken, or fish) enclosed in a banana leaf, this dish has gained popularity beyond its origin due to its delicious flavor, eco-friendly packaging, and convenient portability.
Another version of this is Maguindanao’s kalintubo, which is made from freshly steamed rice and topped with adobo-styled chicken cutlets. What sets kalintubo apart is its unique wrapping method, wherein the banana leaves are folded into conical shapes resembling small volcanoes with openings at the top, elegantly showcasing the stir-fried chicken within.
Yet another native delicacy wrapped in banana leaves is Laguna’s pinais, featuring freshly caught shrimp. This dish involves a meticulous process of combining finely chopped freshwater shrimp, garlic, onion, and grated coconut meat, which are then tightly wrapped in a banana leaf. The bundle is simmered for nearly two hours in a mixture of coconut water and coconut milk until the liquid reduces, allowing the flavors to meld together in a natural and delectable manner.
If you’ve been to Bicol, you’ll know Bicolanos’ deep affinity for gabi or taro. Not only is it a staple tuber in the region’s cuisine, like laing, but it is also used as a food wrapper in other local dishes like pinangat and inolokan.
Known by various names such as tilmok, tinulmok, or tinuktuk, this dish involves blending coconut meat, shrimp, and a medley of spices. The mixture is then enveloped in multiple layers of leaves and slow-cooked in coconut milk. The extended cooking time allows the leaves to tenderize, seamlessly integrating with the overall flavors of the dish. Conversely, inolokan presents a variation using crab meat instead of shrimp, adding a distinctive twist to this traditional culinary offering.
- Sundot Kulangot
When you’re in Bohol, it’s a must to bring home their famous kalamay, but Baguio City offers a unique twist on this sticky and sweet delight with its sundot kulangot. This traditional candy is crafted using coconut jam and enclosed in a small container made from the seeds of a native tree called bitaog or bitaoy. The halved seeds are carefully wrapped in red papel de hapon and secured with bamboo sticks, creating a distinctive and delightful treat that captures the local flavors of Baguio.
In Eastern Visayas, there’s a sweet treat called binagol, and it’s unique. This sticky dessert is made from mashed giant taro, sugar, coconut milk, condensed milk, and egg yolk. What sets it apart is that it’s not just placed inside a coconut shell; it’s also wrapped in banana leaves and tied with string before being steamed or boiled. This extra step adds a special touch to the cooking process, making binagol a delicious and distinctive treat in the region.
- Pintos/ Binaki
Crafted from steamed corn sweet tamales, this delicacy holds its fame in two Philippine locations: Bukidnon and Bogo City, Cebu. Often referred to as steamed corn cakes, pintos/binaki have gained popularity as sought-after pasalubong, particularly among visitors to these regions. Despite both utilizing corn husks as their traditional wrapping, binaki is distinguishable by its longer and narrower shape, while pintos takes on a shorter, rectangular form with additional cross-wise ties.
Another leaf-wrapped local dish in the Philippines is Panay’s sapal, a traditional fermented rice delicacy celebrated for its sweet, sour, and liquor-like taste. In Sibalom, Antique, sapal is expertly wrapped in a talus leaf, often harvested from the wild by locals. Beyond their role as a wrapper, these leaves are believed to infuse additional taste, enhancing the overall flavors of sapal. Similar delicacies can also be found in Pangasinan (Binuburan) and Maguindanao (Tapay).
While it may emit a distinct aroma due to its fermentation process, people have been enjoying this food since time immemorial. Its resistance to spoilage and capacity to shrink in size make it an ideal candidate for various preservation methods and long-term storage.
While Batangas’ Isla Verde is renowned for its marine biodiversity, there’s a sweet treat that’s a must-try alongside exploring the island’s underwater wonders: pakaskas or buri palm sugar. Abundantly grown on the island, farmers extract sap from the buri palm, converting it into palm sugar. After collecting sufficient sap, it is placed in cauldrons, boiled, and stirred continuously over a wood-fired stove until it transforms into caramel. Once ready, the mixture is set aside to cool and then scooped onto molds made from dried buri palm leaves known as casitas.
- Asin sa Buy-o
One of the Philippines’ artisanal salts also embraces traditional food wrapping. Asin sa buy-o from Botolan, Zambales, is crafted by saturating collected sand with seawater and letting it dry throughout the day. The dried mixture is then funneled into a large kawa until sea salt gradually forms. To facilitate convenient storage and distribution, the salt is packed into buy-o containers or cylindrical woven nipa palm leaves.
Preserving the rich tradition of utilizing natural materials in food preparation and storage not only enhances the authenticity of these Filipino delicacies but also reflects a sustainable and eco-friendly approach. From banana leaves to nipa palm leaves, the diverse range of traditional food wraps in the Philippines not only contributes to the unique flavors of these culinary delights but also underscores the deep connection between cultural heritage and sustainable practices. Why use plastic when nature provides such a rich and meaningful alternative, encapsulating the essence of Filipino traditions in every bite? Right?