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Banana Leaves, Rice, and Coconut

What I Learned About Filipino Christmas Traditions, Memories, and Diaspora

homemade suman, still wrapped in banana leaves

The smell of banana leaves reminds me of Christmastime. Every holiday season, my dad prepared suman bulagta — his specialty dessert — among his other annual holiday traditions of cooking kalabasa with malagkit and coconut milk to make biko, steaming mini cupcake tins of atsuete-tinted kutsinta, and cooking cakes of rice flour into palitaw.

One of my tasks was to dry the washed banana leaves. While I knew that the scent of pine cones, cinnamon sticks, and spiced apples were sold to me as the quintessential Christmas scent, as a 2nd-generation Filipina kid born and raised in California, my memory spotlights the earthy, piquant fragrance of banana leaves ready to wrap and steam soaked grains of rice.

There was no such thing as just sitting back and watching my parents cook. Everyone, at pretty much any age and every gender, was expected to help prepare the food.

homemade biko (left) and homemade palitaw (right)

Starting early in the day, after family breakfast, while watching Saturday morning cartoons, my sister and I sat at the dining table snipping arm’s-length of string and lined them up on the tablecloth.

In between walking back and forth from the kitchen, across the living room, and to the backyard, Dad checked on the pots of food steaming or simmering away in the “dirty kitchen” and inspected my work of cutting the string into an appropriate length.

This was important. Too much string was fine but potentially inefficient. Too short of a string posed an inconvenience during the suman-wrapping process.

Next, I dried the washed banana leaves with a fresh paper towel. After preparing the many pieces of string, I walked over to the kitchen counter, stood on a short stool, and eyed the large sheets of banana leaves that Dad left for me on a tray.

“Like this, ne, anak?”

Vigorously yet gently, I wiped the damp banana leaves until they were dry on both sides. I would hold the paper towel close to my nose and breathe in the green fragrance that I learned to love. That was my favorite part.

homemade pandesal with a slice of cheese

That scent of banana leaves stirred my imagination of Christmas in the Philippines. It took me back to the memories that my parents shared, recalling what Pasku looked, smelled, sounded, and tasted like in their hometowns. I loved hearing their stories. I loved hearing about their Christmases before landing in California. I loved visiting my ancestral homeland that I had not yet stepped foot on. I loved hearing about family members who I hadn’t met yet, who I felt close to just by listening.

Their stories happened in a mixture of Kapampangan and English. Like memories, not every word, feeling, or idea has a one-to-one translation. Different words to describe types and stages of rice and coconut. Different iterations of my parents’ recounting of their origin and immigration stories. Different contradictions, entanglements, and connections to generational narratives, systemic inequalities, internalized oppressions, colonial and imperial legacies, skin color, citizenship status, dollar-to-peso exchange rates, and millions of Brown bodies catapulted into diaspora.

Making suman. Making memories. Making lives.

Across borders. Across language. Across time.

I switched out the handful of paper towel until it was too damp.

Mom walked into the kitchen with a bowl of leftover chocolate flavored oatmeal — a makeshift champorado of Nestle Quik powder and Quaker Oats — that Apu didn’t finish and covered it with plastic wrap. Helping dry the banana leaves meant that Mom could take the time to feed my grandma. Apu had Alzheimer’s Disease, so her memories didn’t float in as iterations but as clouds. I couldn’t ask her about Pasku. So, I asked my many grandmothers with what Kapampangan words and English language we collectively knew.

Over the staticky long-distance phone call, my other apu, my mom’s youngest aunt and my grandma’s youngest sister, said, “Merry Christmas! I love you!”

“Love you too, Apu,” I answered shyly.

My apu, my dad’s mom, spoke to me happily about our relatives and how we celebrated Pasku in the barrio. I resemble her. We tried our best to communicate and understand each other because, by that time, school and speech therapy recommended for developmental purposes — presumably the educational kind, but seemed more like the 1950s Area Studies kind (which is not to be confused with Ethnic Studies) — that I speak only English at home because, supposedly, bilingualism hindered my learning. My parents heeded the advice and tried their best to not mix languages and gendered pronouns.

Dad would take out the huge metal bowl containing malagkit that had soaked overnight in water then mixed it with a splash of lye water. Positioning himself at the dining table with the bowl of malagkit, tray of banana leaves, and lines of string, he deftly wrapped and tied mounds of glutinous rice into green cylinders encased by banana leaves.

The suman cooked for about 8 hours in the tall metal steamers on the “dirty kitchen” stovetop.

store-bought parol

On the backyard patio, Ingkung checked the handmade parol, adding any finishing touches to the traditional decoration that he insisted on making out of bamboo. I thought it was beautiful. When my grandpa paused for a cigarette break, I asked him about the parol.

In between puffs of menthol-flavored Benson & Hedges cigarettes, he recalled the annual parol fiesta in San Fernando, Pampanga, of gigantic, colorful star-shaped lanterns that our ancestral hometown was known for. Ingkung shared photos, stories, and his love of reading with us. However, there were many stories that I didn’t learn until we sat down for his oral history interview 20 years later. Only then, after replaying and transcribing the audio recording and juxtaposing what he said with Googled information, did his English diction and vocabulary make sense to me. Until then, I amassed and filed away questions. In the meantime, we had the parol he made, the laughter we shared during walks to the neighborhood park, and his stern love rooting for our success.

homemade suman, unwrapped, with fresh coconut and white sugar

After Dad checked and Mom inspected the suman, we sampled a small batch for our daily afternoon merienda. We would share the rest with our extended family during packed-like-canned-sardinas holiday parties and even brought trays of cooked suman to relatives and family friends.

Everyone enjoyed the gift of suman. It was a food that my young nieces looked forward to every year and, one time, cried about it until their aunt, my cousin, turned the car around, while en route to the freeway, because they forgot the bag of suman that my Mom packed for them.

After unwrapping the banana leaf, I enjoyed my suman with a mountain of freshly grated ngungut and a small sprinkling of white sugar. During Pasku, we always had fresh ngungut on hand that Dad grated using the kudkuran — the only way that I knew how to get soft, fresh curls of naturally sweet coconut flesh that were vastly unlike the stiff coconut shavings in plastic bags on supermarket shelves. He placed the kudkuran on the edge of a sturdy wooden stool, sat down, and grated the inside of a coconut half. We were encouraged to watch the fresh ngungut fall into a snowy pile onto a tray and always warned not to play with the sharp teeth of this wood-and-metal tool.

That was what Christmas meant to me.

Watching, listening, absorbing information, asking questions, and participating where I could so that I could understand what Filipino Christmas traditions were to my family and me.

homemade pandesal

Over the years, I found something that I could share as my Pasku contribution. One summer, somewhere between attending a weekly writers workshop and training for a half-marathon, I learned how to make pandesal from scratch. The first bake was definitely not delicious. The dough came out of the oven flat and flavorless. I searched for recipes to understand why proportions, techniques, and conditions mattered. After one week of playing with the ingredients and baking fresh pandesal on an almost daily basis, I pieced together a recipe that worked. When Pasku rolled around, after completing my tasks of snipping the strands of string and drying the banana leaves, I baked pillowy, breadcrumb-encrusted rolls of pandesal. It became something I could share and enjoy together with my family alongside our storytelling traditions of rice, coconut, and banana leaves.