Heritage Merienda

When wanting to learn more about a certain place and its people, the best starting point would always be food. The ingredients offer an idea of the climate and what is abundantly grown in the area, the cooking techniques reflect the influences in the local culture, while the flavors sustain the people into the future.

Kakanins, or traditional Filipino rice cakes, are found all over the country, but each with their own twist depending on where they’re made from. Recipes vary from region to region, yet the key ingredients are starch, cream, and sweeteners. Here in Negros, where sugarcanes are seen on nearly every open farmland, the kakanins are sought-after desserts during fiestas and celebrations. But they are also the daily snack-of-choice, or merienda, for most Negrenses.

Ibos, But-ong, and Alupi, are probably some of the best examples of merienda food that are popular in Negros. It is believed that migrants from Panay brought these culinary delights with them when they moved to Negros during the sugar migration rush in the 1850s and early 1900s. Commonly bought from local markets and manuglibods, or itinerant vendors, having a few of these at any time of the day has proven to be quite filling, yet easy on the pocket.

Making and selling merienda food is a heritage trade. Take Joy Pactao of Barangay Granada in Bacolod City. She has been a passionate merienda cook for over a decade, having learned the art from her aunt who, in turn, inherited the skill from her grandmother, a known merienda expert. Joy’s passion for making heritage merienda is rooted to her love for family tradition. But she quickly admits, it is a labor of love.

Joy’s day officially begins at nine in the evening while the rest of the town gets ready for bed. Gathering her ingredients, she begins to prepare her pilit – a mixture of glutinous rice, sugar, salt, and coconut milk simmered for a couple of hours, then molded and packed in coconut or banana leaves. Batch after batch she produces them late into the night up to the wee hours of the morning. This dedication to a strict work routine keeps her products fresh for delivery to the local market by 4:30 in the morning. Living roughly 10 kilometers away from the market Joy makes the daily morning trek to ensure she's back home by six, just in time to send her kids off to school. These sweets may be priced affordably, but there is nothing cheap about the arduous labor that goes into making them.

In the countryside of Negros, merienda-making has remained a cottage industry, with just a handful cooks upholding the old-fashioned way of things. The young have mostly flown the coop, many to foreign lands. Those who continue to work from home for sure are not making kakanins, but most likely making online content. Meanwhile, ingredients have become ready-to-use, for why plant and harvest cassava when processed cassava meat may simply be added to cart online? All these, changes in the shadow of modernization, can make the story of the heritage merienda poignant. Until we realize that people’s taste for it, and demand for it, live on.

Today, we see local food manufacturers elevating heritage merienda to another level. Some have become consolidators of sorts, bringing together food made by different traditional cooks in the countryside who continue to be valued for their specializations. Still, other manufacturers have expanded their kitchens to include modern technology able to simulate the sumptuousness, stickiness, sweetness of traditional merienda food, sold in basket trays for ambience.

For all the dedication of Joy and her fellow cooks, for all the years in front of the wood-burning stove, the nicks from grating and chopping, the late nights and early mornings, and for all the Negrenses who went to school by the sweat of their mothers’ brow, the lowly Ibos, But-ong, and Alupi have a proud and enduring story to tell.

Catch our video documentary, Heritage Merienda, and see how Ibos, But-ong, and Alupi are traditionally made.

Article by: Mayumi Espina

Photos by: Bakunawa Films

Video by: Bakunawa Films

Videoscript: Mayee Fabregas

Design and Architecture

Cultural Experience

Art and Craft