Hello momshies! Today’s post is about why comfort food is so, well, comforting. I was baking cassava cake the other day and was ruminating on this while I baked.
Food plays such an important role in our childhood memories. Think back to your favorite family meals, birthday cakes, and homemade treats. Those flavors and smells transport us back to simpler, happier times in our lives.
When I think of childhood comfort food, one of the dishes that immediately come to mind are the endless array of kakanin that I grew up with, in this case- all the delicacies from cassava (kamoteng kahoy) or what we call in the islands as “balinghoy” or buybuy. (Trivia: In our small province of Marinduque with 6 towns, Kamoteng kahoy has different names in different towns. In Mogpog where I hail from, it’s Balinghoy, in Boac it’s Karlubang, in Gasan it’s Buybuy. 🤷🏽♀️)
Cassava is a carbohydrate rich staple of West African cuisine. It’s high in calcium, phosphorus and fiber yet gluten free. The cassava plant is native to Brazil but also widely cultivated in parts of Africa and Asia, providing an essential source of calories for a billion people. Planters encouraged cassava because it thrived in poor soil and was drought resistant.
The Cassava Cake
This moist cake made from simply combining cassava root, coconut milk, and condensed milk gains layers of flavor from a rich caramel custard topping. It’s mildly sweet and milky in flavor.
Cassava cake is a traditional and well-loved dessert in the Philippines. It is typically enjoyed as merienda, the between-meals snack time. Cassava cake is also a popular dish for gatherings and occasions, where families socialize over this simple treat.
My Lola used to make this cassava cake on special occasions and when it’s cassava season, steaming it to perfection in banana leaves. Making these is a family affair and aunts and uncles, with cousins to boot will pitch in with wrapping the suman. As a child, the aroma of sugar, coconut, and cassava wafting from the kitchen instantly transported me to a different world, one filled with happiness and warmth. Almost Christmassy -if there ever is that word.
Nowadays, if you ask kids about their favorite childhood snacks, memories of cake are likely to emerge. Birthday parties, sleepovers, and weekends were punctuated by these sugary confections.
But what if one of those cakes was not like the others?
What if instead of flour, sugar, and eggs, it was made with cassava, a humble tuber as alien to the Philippines as cake once was? The story of cassava cake reveals a great deal about culture, tradition, and our colonial experience. The cassava plant which, as mentioned, actually originated in South America but was brought over by the Spaniards, becoming deeply ingrained in Filipino cuisine. So ingrained that I was actually surprised that it’s not a native Philippine plant.
For me, a big part of relaxing as a mom is reconnecting with those comforting flavors from my childhood. That meant the cassava cake and a host of other native delicacies, courtesy of the wonderful women of the family. On special occasions when I was young, rice flour, coconut milk, and the cassava would magically turn into this melt-in-your mouth kakanin that filled our small kubo with the heavenly scent of cassava cake.
What the Cassava Cake Tells Us
What can one simple cassava cake tell us about culture and family? Plenty! Three big lessons:
First, food ties us to our roots. That cassava cake kept my Filipino heritage alive, and reminded me of home, no matter how far away I strayed. Flavor bridges distances, connecting us through taste across the generations.
Second, assimilation is a gradual blending. Though it came from as far as Africa which never really had intersected with the Philippines at any point in our history. Traditions evolve while still staying true to themselves, as cultures mix and remix over time.
Finally, traditions endure when parents pass them to kids. I grew up never really cooking kakanin, just observing the Lolas. and the Aunties, but I guess it stuck. You don’t learn to bake cassava cake in school or see it served at restaurants. It’s shared within the confines of a home kitchen, a binding ritual between parent and child. That feeling of comfort and continuity is what makes comfort food so comforting – it restores our sense of belonging in an unfamiliar world. And when children cook family recipes, a little bit of the “food heritage” lives on.
The next time you’re offered a comforting childhood treat, think of its story. Savor the history in its flavors, the roots clinging to tradition across time. Taste the hand that passed it down. In those sweet moments of tasted transcendence, souls connect and families are made.
Now I know that is a bit long-winded but I hope you enjoyed the side trip. If you’re here for the recipe, please enjoy using the recipe below!
Hope this cassava cake recipe helps, Momshies! Let me know of any other comforting recipes in your family worth passing on. And don’t forget to sign up for my Relax Lang Mom newsletter for more stories, recipes, and mom encouragement!
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