14 April 2008

Onde-Onde and the Southeast Asian Connection

I recently made a batch of onde-onde, an Indonesian/Malaysian dumpling made of sticky rice flour with sweet filling. It calls to mind palitaw, a Filipino favorite. Like most dishes from our region, they have countless variations. But in general, both are boiled in water (and they likewise float when they are done). Both are eaten sprinkled with grated coconut.

The onde-onde, however, is a filled ball, and the palitaw is flat. Onde-onde contains coconut milk, while palitaw uses only water for its dough. Palitaw's sweetness comes from the sugar and sesame seeds on top.

Filipinos rarely ponder their relationship with the rest of Southeast Asia, probably because we are isolated from the mainland, and have an identity so defined by our supercolonial past. It thus came as quite a surprise that onde-onde's name is so obviously related to the Pangasinan snack unda-unday. This regional sweet is also made with sticky rice flour, but has no filling, is flat like palitaw, and is served with coconut sauce. (Are you confused yet?)

To complicate matters further, I decided to include some of the onde-onde (sans toppings) in guinataan, a Filipino pudding made with coconut milk. This is to celebrate the mixed-up-ness of everything, which is a reflection of the beautiful movement of people and knowledge through time. Food reminds us that we are part of a larger, evolving whole.

This is how I made my version of onde-onde:

First I made a pandan-tanglad extract by boiling pandan and lemongrass leaves in water. I strained that and mixed it with enough coconut milk to make a dough out of about two cups of sticky rice flour.

You need to pinch enough dough to make a ball, bore a small hole in it. In this hole goes raw sugar. Indonesia uses palm sugar, which was rendered obsolete in the Philippines by the Spaniards. So I used the more available raw mascobado sugar (from sugar cane), which works just as well, except it has a heavier and more cloying molasses taste.

For good measure, I added pulp from ripened Indian mangoes, as well as a bit of sesame seeds.

Seal it, and seal it well so it does not leak as it cooks.

Every ball goes into a pot of boiling water, rising to the surface as it is ready. After letting them drain, roll them in freshly grated coconut. Liquid sweetness will burst forth with every bite. A good but heavy snack!

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