In Ifugao, the ‘binakle’ is both a delicacy and symbol of lost tradition

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By Lawrence Casiraya

BANAUE, IFUGAO PROVINCE –  It’s cheap, it’s starchy and it hits your stomach like a brick. This delicacy also speaks volumes about the culture and tradition of the Ifugao people.

In the Philippines, you will find different varieties of suman or rice cake depending on the region or province.  It’s also called many names – in Cebu and in most southern provinces, for example, they call it budbod but usually comes wrapped in banana leaves.

The most common ingredient is malagkit or glutinous rice although kamoteng kahoy or cassava and coconut  – like in the case of the tupig common in northern provinces – are also used as the main ingredient.

The Ifugao version is the binakle and made from dayakkot or native red rice. Diketa rare variety of medium-grain sticky rice also grown in the rice terraces – is also used.

During our visit to Hingyon last May in time for the town fiesta, I chanced upon Magdalena Cawal-o selling binakle, wrapped in banana leaves but  flatter in shape unlike the more common elongated suman I’m familiar with.

At P5 per piece, it was a cheap yet temporary filling treat to my grumbling stomach after a 12-hour bus trip to Ifugao. I hastily finished one and fished out another from her plastic tub of binakle. I’m not much of a sweet tooth so a subtle hint of sweetness (Aling Magdalena mixed brown sugar with the malagkit) was fine with me. Looking back, it would have been a great pair to a cup of their native tinawon coffee.

Pag may okasyon dito sa amin, lagi meron nagbebenta nito (Whenever there’s a fiesta or special occasion here, you can always find it),” she tells me. “Pag kulang ang ani ng malagkit, gamit namin ay kamote (When there’s not enough glutinous rice, we use cassava).”

Aling Magdalena helps support her family’s livelihood by selling binakle and other native delicacies regularly for meryenda. I bet there was no one as eager as me back then to have a taste of this Ifugao dessert.

But the binakle is more than just a dessert; it could be taken as a symbol of the Ifugaos’ affinity to their land and rice as their main crop.

An Ifugao ritual called bakle, or the making of binakle, was performed as thanksgiving to the rice gods (or the bulul) for a bountiful harvest. (This Facebook post by the group Taga-Malabing Valley AK describes this ritual in more detail.)

Glutinous rice is soaked in water and then members of the community take turns pounding the rice into fine flour until it becomes dough. The pounding is even done to a rhythmic sound, similar to the beating of drums. Lungi (sesame seeds) is added to the dough then wrapped in banana leaves. Once cooked, the binakle is served to everyone in the village and their visitors.

But modernization has changed  farming in Ifugao and along with it traditions and rituals like the bakle. According to this article posted on Northern Dispatch Weekly, the introduction of new varieties of rice has changed the indigenous plant-and-harvest cycle of the Ifugaos.

In short, rituals like the binakle have gradually faded away. I didn’t have a clue back then at Hingyon that biting into a piece of rice cake could mean – at least, symbolically – that I was becoming part of the Ifugao community. I would have bought more rice cakes from Aling Magdalena and saved some for dessert.

Related stories:
Savor the unique blend of ‘tinawon’-flavored Ifugao coffee

A glimpse of Ifugao culture and traditions at the ‘Gotad ad Hingyon’

How 2,000 years of ‘bayanihan’ built the Ifugao rice terraces


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