Shortly after moving to Malaysia we fell under the spell of all things putu. Call it research (we're food 'documentarians', after all) or call it a quest for the best, but we are physically unable to pass a putu stall without stopping.
Putu - steamed rice cakes, broadly defined - are God's gift to rice-inclined (and wheat disinclined) fans of dough treats, and they are thick on the ground in Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines (it's been suggested that they originated in southern India). They aren't always sweet, and they assume innumerable shapes, colors, and textures, depending on what they're steamed in, what they're filled with (if anything), and what is - or isn't - mixed with the rice flour they're made from.
This rice puto stall at the Quezon City (Manila) Sunday Lung Center market (the final 'u' is replaced with an 'o' in Tagalog) specializes in makapuno puto, that is, puto made with the fruit of the makapuno coconut palm. Makapuno coconut flesh has been described as slightly 'glutinous'. In the Philippines it's often used to make ice cream and preserves.
Unlike Malaysian putu, these rice flour cakes are cooked not in stainless steel molds, but in coconut shells. The rice flour is packed directly into the shell, with no cheesecloth liner.
These colorful, ingenious steamers are made from coconut oil cans. The cans are filled with water and placed over a gas burner. Once filled with rice flour the coconut shell half (a small hole is cut into its bottom) is set on the can's opening. A banana leaf-wrapped weight, placed over the mouth of the coconut 'bowl', is the steamer's 'lid'.
After about five minutes of steaming the rice flour-makapuno dough has come together in a mass and is ready to be unmolded.
As much as we loved observing the process, we weren't exactly crazy about these puto. They're texturally quite interesting - the makapuno mixed in with the rice flour lends a certain amount of chewiness - but, as certified palm sugar lovers we missed the smoky sweetness of the sugar-boosted Malay-Indonesian and Indian versions.
No matter. The world of the Philippine puto is large and, for us, largely uncharted. Future trips to the archipelago nation will no doubt yield worthy finds.