Not cocoa -- coconut! Rich, luscious coconut jam over a special 'skiver
I've got an itch.
[They've got creams for that, y'know . . .]
I mean a cognitive itch - "the mental equivalent of an itchy back", according to James Kellaris, a University of Cincinnati marketing professor who coined the term to explain the all-too-common condition of earworms, those annoying tunes that get stuck in your head.
"The only way to 'scratch' a cognitive itch is to rehearse the responsible tune mentally . . . The ensuing mental repetition may exacerbate the itch, such that the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop."
(Kellaris, quoted in "Songs That Cause the Brain to Itch")Dr. Kellaris is referring to music, but I seem to have caught an edible variant of this audible condition: a particular food that insinuated itself into my consciousness, mercilessly stung my appetite and trapped me in a whirlpool of web searches until I finally found the right recipe to soothe it.
Scratching at the Surface
It all began when Lori at Fake Food Free wrote about two favorite food discoveries from her recent travels through Southeast Asia: the intriguing, albeit visually alarming, Soup Tulang (bone marrow soup) and kaya, a delectable coconut jam popular in Malaysia and Singapore. The latter set off tingly feelings of familiarity, even though I've never before tasted it. Instead, it brought to mind Filipino coconut jam and sparked a question: what other versions of this deliciously rich spread might be out there? Before I knew it, a tickle of curiosity turned into a full-fledged spasm for answers.
From the start, it was clear that kaya, a sweet confection made of coconut milk, eggs, pandan extract and sugar, is the best known iteration of coconut jam on the Web, with several blog posts and food references popping up (see also this piece from Phyllis at meHungry, where I first read about it). The most popular preparation of the jam is by layering it with pieces of cool butter on toasted bread to make kaya toast; when served with a soft-boiled egg and a cup of coffee, it comprises what many consider to be Singapore's 'National Breakfast'. Rather than offer a diluted synthesis of the myriad recipes and facts already available about kaya, I encourage you to visit more learned sources, such as Aun Koh of Chubby Hubby and Robyn Eckhardt of EatingAsia, as well as this recent and raved-about recipe from StephCookie at Raspberri Cupcakes.
Despite kaya's near-monopoly of the search results, there were tantalizing hints about coconut jam in other regional cuisines from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. But 'tantalize' is just another word for 'tease': there were frustratingly few details about the origins, ingredients and cultural significance, if any, of these alternative confitures.
At the center of it all
Jams, Jams Everywhere . . .
The most obscure of them is siamu popo, a Samoan coconut caramel spread, for which I found a brief mention in a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) document. From this tidbit of data, subsequent online searches turned up only a literal translation (siamu = 'spread', popo = 'coconut'), references in Samoan-language websites (of which, regrettably, Google Translate is not yet capable), and a few remarks in cultural events newsletters alluding to the jam as a national foodstuff. Out of desperation, I tried a longshot keyword search for 'Samoa + coconut + caramel', which only yielded more information than necessary about a particular Girl Scout cookie. All in all, I came away with little else.
More promising was Caribbean coconut jam (which is a lot like calling kaya 'Asian coconut jam' - accurate in a non-informative way). Once again, there was little specific detail about the origins and significance of this condiment, but at least I found a recipe! Unlike kaya and, as you'll see later, Filipino coconut jam, the Caribbean version uses shredded coconut rather than just the cream or milk, and incorporates lime zest, cinnamon and nutmeg. I also came across Passion Culinaire, a French-language food blog that featured a recipe for gâteau de coco (coconut cake), which the author describes as "typique de la Martinique (typical of Martinique)" and uses a nearly identical recipe for the dulcet filling. Although this is hardly definitive proof for a specific place of origin for Caribbean coconut jam, perhaps it narrows the scope a bit.
Next was Egyptian coconut jam, which I learned is traditionally served during Passover and is associated with the cuisine of Syrian Jews of Sephardi origins (source: Wikipedia/Syrian Jews). In an article for The Independent (UK) a few years ago, food writer Claudia Roden, the Cairo-born author of The Book of Jewish Food, described her childhood memories of celebrating Pessah (as Passover is known in Egypt) and the many foods that held special connotations for the holiday, including "jams and preserves [made] with coconut, which evoked purity by its whiteness." Happily, she also shared a recipe for Egyptian coconut jam that is significantly different from the other spreads by its use of distinctly Middle Eastern flavors of floral essences and nuts.
**If you are familiar with and have more details about any of these jams (or know of another kind), please share! I'd love to learn more about them.**
A Jam by Any Other Name
As appealing as all these coconut jams are, the persistent tickle in my tummy was for the version nearest to my heart - the rich, dark spread of caramel-y consistency known by various names in the Philippines: matamis na bao (Tagalog for 'sweet coconut shell'), katiba (in Pangasinan), latik and the colloquial cocojam. Whereas kaya sweetens buttered toast and the Caribbean confection fills a layered cake, matamis na bao is at its luscious best as a topping for such native sticky-rice cakes as biko and suman. They also happen to be my all-time favorite Filipino desserts (and the main temptations at the Circles breakfast buffet during the holidays), so when Lori's post touched off a coconut jam craving, I went in search of a recipe.
Matamis na Bao: sweet stuff
Although cocojam had its fair share of search results, I was flabbergasted to find that nearly all of them referred to commercial products, even where the author made the accompanying rice cakes from scratch. I fared no better with my collection of Filipino cookbooks - not one had a recipe specifically for matamis na bao. Finally, finally, I found something: a simple 3-ingredient recipe that required only a bit of adaptation. My coconut jam itch was about to be scratched . . .
Fast forward to this very moment, when there's a lovely little jar of scrumptious matamis in my refrigerator. While it took a little time and a lot of stirring, the effort yielded the flavor and texture that I so fondly recalled. But while I've sated this particular craving, I'm starting to feel a slight prickling of the appetite again - the other jam recipes, it seems, are playing my song.
Matamis Na Bao
(adapted from this recipe)
Despite the lack of details about the different jams discussed here, it's undeniable that each is quite distinct from the other while still sharing the essence of coconut. For this reason, I chose to use the Tagalog term for coconut jam to distinguish its proud provenance, just as kaya in Malaysia and Singapore, and siamu popo in Samoa signify their origins. If anyone is aware of other names for Caribbean and Egyptian coconut jams, please let us know!
As mentioned, this recipe consists of just three ingredients; however, I was not readily familiar with two of them, necessitating substitutions that turned out much better than expected. The following briefly describes the original ingredients and my substitutes:
Fresh Coconut Milk
One version of the matamis na bao recipe begins with fresh coconuts and proceeds to instruct on scraping, soaking and squeezing the meat to produce fresh cream. Not gonna happen. There are plenty of excellent canned coconut milk products readily available, such as Aroy-D and Savoy; I used the brand Chaokoh after reading this convincing product review from Leela at SheSimmers.
In the Philippines, panutsa is a grade of muscovado sugar, one of the country's fastest-growing agricultural products, and is commonly found in cake or chunk forms. Similar products include panela from Colombia, jaggery in India, and rapadura in Brazil (source: Wikipedia/Panela). While dark brown sugar may be used in its place, the flavor is likely to be much sweeter and less complex than ideal. I opted for muscovado rocks that we brought home from our recent Philippine trip and I encourage you to look for muscovado or similar sugars at your local Asian and Latin markets before resorting to DBS.
Calling a food by its chemical component is so unappetizing! In the US, glucose syrup is perhaps better known as corn syrup, while in the UK the preferred liquid sweetener is golden syrup (or treacle), made from sugar cane. My third, and winning, option was molasses, the dark, viscous by-product of sugar refining (ironically, it's added back to white sugar in small amounts to make 'brown sugar'). Specifically, I used blackstrap molasses, which contains many of the nutrients extracted during the refining of sugar cane, including iron, potassium and calcium. However, it is much less sweet than other syrups and is actually somewhat bitter, so I reduced by half the amount called for in the original recipe.
The result was a coconut jam of caramel-smooth texture, dark chocolate color and subtly complex flavor.
2 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/4 cup blackstrap molasses
1 cup muscovado sugar
1. In a heavy sauce pan or pot, combine coconut milk and molasses over medium heat until it comes to a gentle boil;
2. Add muscovado sugar and stir well to dissolve into mixture. Continue cooking at a gentle boil, stirring constantly and reducing heat as necessary to keep from boiling over;
3. Cook mixture until it reaches 200°-220°F on candy thermometer ('jelly' stage) - approximately 1 hour of cooking time. The mixture will have reduced by at least half.
4. Remove from heat and let cool for a bit before transferring into a clean glass jar. Coconut jam should keep in the refrigerator for about 2 weeks.
For this recipe, the matamis will have a room-temperature consistency similar to soft fudge. For use as a sauce, spoon a desired amount into a microwaveable container, add milk or water by the teaspoon, and heat for 10-12 seconds until the right consistency is achieved.
(adapted from Cooks.com)
I can't leave well enough alone. Though matamis na bao can be used like kaya as a bread spread, it really shines when paired with glutinous rice cakes cooked in coconut milk. Too impatient to make those more involved recipes, I instead pulled out my aebleskiver pan, played around with a batter recipe and cooked up a tangled, Asian-Danish fusion pancake ball with the slightly chewy texture of a rice cake and a sweet center of coconut jam.
2 cups coconut milk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rice flour
2 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons sugar
Matamis na bao or other coconut jam
1. Pre-heat aebleskiver or takoyaki pan over medium heat;
2. Separate the eggs and beat whites until stiff, then set aside;
3. Combine the remaining ingredients (including egg yolks) and mix until smooth. Fold in egg whites;
4. Add scant vegetable oil to pan and heat, then spoon batter into wells until just to the top;
5. Spoon small portions of coconut jam (about 1/4 teaspoon) onto batter before the first turn, then continue cooking 'skivers as usual;
6. Serve with a side of matamis na bao and freshly grated coconut.