How Filipino Purple Rice Cakes Became a Part of Eat Drink Local

Local clams on top of suman, or little rice cakes made with purple diket and local cornmeal.

The 11 Eat Drink Local Week Ingredients of the Day — yesterday’s item, our last, was apple cider — celebrated a slew of fruits, vegetables, proteins and beverages we picked out precisely for their northeastern or even New York roots. And our Festival of the 11 Ingredients tasting on Monday was meant to celebrate them: Think Kelso of Brooklyn lagers, barbecued Long Island duck drumsticks courtesy Dickson’s Farmstead meats, Carino’s deep-fried cauliflower, a vegetable first cultivated commercially just up the road in Margaretville, or the Littleneck clams and locally ground cornmeal served by Purple Yam.

But those weren’t the only ingredients in Purple Yam’s app. As Amy Besa noted in a lovely pre-event post she put up on Monday — she runs the restaurant in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn with her husband Romy Dorotan — so often “local” is linked with a “new American”  style of cooking. You know, that celeriac puree with a drizzle of Concord grape reduction and candied local bacon.

But there are many, many New York City cooks such as Amy and Romy — the pair, both native Filipinos, also wrote the richly researched book Memories of Philippine Kitchens — who also incorporate local foods into their own culinary traditions or their own interpretations of traditions, or, for that matter, who work to preserve the food traditions in their homelands. Along those lines, Besa and her husband decided to serve Long Island clams cooked with coconut milk, chiles, carrots and celery and served atop mini rice cakes made of both Filipino rice called diket and local red and yellow cornmeal from Cayuga Pure Organics upstate.

As Amy says, supporting sustainable foodways can also include seeking out and buying heirloom products in danger of being lost due to lack of markets and buyers. (In fact that’s just what our friends at Heritage Foods USA, based in Brooklyn, does for heirloom foods and especially animal breeds across the country.)

“So for tonight’s offering at the Chelsea Market,” Besa wrote on Monday, “we will be serving miniature suman or rice cakes made with the purple diket (glutinous) heirloom rice from the [Filipino] terraces.  When one bites and eats these grains,  one partakes in a meal that our ancestors have eaten centuries ago.  These grains carry the same DNA that our ancestors planted because these are not hybrids.  That is what is meant by heirloom.  From what many studies have proven many times before, eating organic heirloom produce are the healthiest food to eat as heirlooms contain more nutrients than hybrids.”

Besa actually imports her diket, or heirloom rice, from a company called Eighth Wonder, which tells her the grains are harder to procure than even other heirloom varieties because the birds eat the grains faster than harvesters can gather them. And while the purple majesties certainly won’t be making our list of Ingredients of the Day for next year, they and other heirloom species around the globe are at least worth seeking out when the time and place is right.

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