Sugar Pills: Pastillas de Leche

Wednesday, June 8, 2011 30 comments
Cup of sugar: Pastillas de Leche à la Mila
*Update: Read about the special paper-cutting art of pabalat, decorative candy wrappers for pastillas de leche here.*

"Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,
In a most delightful way."
--From 'A Spoonful of Sugar' in Mary Poppins,
Music & lyrics by Robert M. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman

Long before it was enshrined in saccharine song by a practically perfect nanny, sweetening bitter pills and potions has been a mother's best strategy when nursing fractious youngsters back to health. I remember my own childhood bouts of sickness, when Mama would mix crushed baby aspirin with a teaspoon of milk and a sprinkle of sugar to mask the chalky medicine taste. It was still awful, but choking it down was made easier by that little bit of sweetness.

The idea of making medicaments more palatable with pleasant flavorings is as old as pharmacology itself - not surprising given that some concoctions found in ancient pharmacopoeia sound worse than any ailment:
"The compilation of remedies in the Papyrus Ebers [ca. 1550 BC] consists of 700 drugs and 800 prescriptions... From the plant kingdom, the Egyptians obtained peppermint, saffron, lotus flower, linseed, henbane*, anise, colocynth*, and other items, while the animal kingdom supplied lizard's blood, swine's teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat, milk, moisture from pigs' ears, and excreta from humans, donkeys, antelopes, dogs, cats and flies." *poisonous plants
[Ethel Thompson in 'Doctors, Doctrines and Drugs in Ancient Times', n.p.]
From medieval pharmacy . . . 
(Photo credit:
It's doubtful whether any amount of sugar-coating would have made these medicinals remotely agreeable. Thankfully, 21st century pharmaceuticals have relegated such noxious nostrums to ancient history and replaced them with easy-to-swallow caplets and fruit-flavored syrups. However, one form of sweetened medicine, minus the dubious ingredients, endures as - what else? - an actual sweet.

Pastilles: From Cures to Candies

Today, the word pastille brings to mind chocolate drops and fruit jellies, an affiliation which some sources credit to the popular sweetmeats of Giovanni Pastilla, a 17th century confectioner in the court of French queen Marie de Medici. However, a more likely etymology of the term traces further back, to the Latin pastillus ('small loaf' or 'little roll'), which fits well with an earlier and more widespread use of the word to describe both a type of incense and medication - small oblong or round pellets consisting of compressed herbs for burning and of viscous liquid solidified in sugar-dusted moulds for ingestion.

. . . to modern candy shop
(Photo credit: filippo_jean/flickr)
The jump from cures to candies wasn't a stretch: food historians agree that many of today's confections were cooked up from medicinals, such as marshmallows, jujubes and licorice. Unlike these tidbits, which are now best known as sweets, pastilles continue to straddle the line between remedy and treat. Products such as throat-soothing Gerther's Pastilles and the digestive aid Pastilles de Vichy are marketed as much for their candy-like characteristics as for their original medicinal properties, while brightly colored Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles still bear the term, though the tablets are now strictly for sweet tooth satisfaction. And don't forget chocolate: Droste Pastilles, in their distinctive hexagonal packaging, are the perfect convergence of health and happiness - what better way to pep up low energy or a heavy mood than with some cocoa therapy?

Pastillas: Soaps, Soups, Tweets and Sweets

In addition to its translation as pill, tablet, lozenge, etc., the Spanish cognate pastilla is used to describe various non-medicinal items shaped in bar or cube forms, such as soaps (pastillas de jabón) and soup stock cubes (pastillas de caldo). It is also the name given to a traditional Moroccan squab (pigeon) pie.¹ But in the Philippines, pastilla has a singular, significant connotation.

'Our Own': Tasty pasalubong for sale
Ask a Filipino to name his or her favorite native sweet and chances are that many will pick pastillas de leche. Made from a simple mixture of sugar and milk (preferably carabao, or water buffalo) boiled down to a thickened paste and rolled in more sugar, pastillas are practically synonymous with pasalubong - a special gift or souvenir, usually representative of indigenous Filipino culture and often a food item. Although it bears a strong similarity to dulce de leche and caramel candies in base ingredients and cooking technique, a pastilla de leche is neither as smoothly viscous as the former nor as chewy as the latter. Instead, variations can have consistencies ranging from soft cookie dough to the granular firmness of maple sugar candy. But is this sufficient difference to make pastillas de leche a uniquely Filipino sweet?

Boiling It Down

The history and origins of pastillas de leche are somewhat murky. Many references I found online categorize this confection as a native adaptation of a Spanish food, but it seems more of an assumption based on the Spanish name than on actual provenance. I could not find a similar candy bearing the same label in any Hispanic-based cuisines, other than 'pastillas de leche de burra', or donkey's milk tablet. Though it sounds promising as a possible precursor to Pinoy pastillas, what little information is available describes a hard candy that first appeared in Spanish pharmacies between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was marketed as a nutritional supplement and cough drop for children. In contrast, Filipinos may have been making pastillas de leche well before this period and descriptions do not mention any palliative purpose, other than as a cure for homesickness.

Perhaps the name is only a borrowed tag, to give a simple native sweet a bit of colonial cachet, as theorized by Jaime Veneracion in his paper "The 'Hispanization' of the Filipino":
"But because [Spanish dishes] came as the food of the colonizer, they entered at the level of domination. To the Filipinos, these thus symbolized status or 'class' that may only be consumed during special occasions such as fiestas and anniversaries... In some instances, when the Chinese and other Filipinos wanted to create the impression of being exotic, Spanish names had been given to what appeared as common dishes."²
While it's possible that pastillas de leche were so named to give it a more sosyal (elite) connotation, the more likely explanation is rather benign. One need only think back to the etymology of pastilla, then look at the Filipino sweet's traditional shape: an inch-long piece of confection rolled into a small, sugar-covered loaf... Still, why a Spanish name and not a native one? Though the candy recipe itself does not appear to have a direct Spanish antecedent, it is rooted in Spanish colonial influence.

Elite Filipino mestizos
(Photo from
Nearly everyone³ agrees that pastillas de leche originated in the province of Bulacan, located north of Manila. This proximity to the seat of colonial rule in the Philippines made it an important source for the city's supply of various goods, which were produced on large estates owned by Spanish Catholic friars. The province was also home to many of a class of Filipino intellectuals called Ilustrados, who were expected to be educated in Spain and speak fluent Español in order to claim this social status⁴. Given that it was essentially a lingua franca of Bulacan, it is really no surprise that a Spanish name would be bestowed on a food created there.

Saints Alive! Or Make One Up...

(Photo credit:
Speaking of names, a tangent to the story of pastillas de leche is worth sharing. By all accounts, this candy originated specifically in the town of San Miguel de Mayumo, which translates to 'Saint Michael of Sweets' (mayumo means 'sweet' in the Kapampangan language). This heavenly moniker is quite fitting for a place that is known as a confectionary capital, but it's not quite what you think. The original name was actually Miguel Mayumo, after its founders Miguel Pineda and Mariano Puno; the latter's famously kind disposition apparently inspired the 'sweet' part. Fast forward a few years after the town's founding in 1763, when a resident discovered a natural stone figure resembling St. Michael the Archangel in a nearby cave. Taking it as a miraculous sign from God, the citizens decided to add 'saint' to their town's name in proper tribute. Thusly did San Miguel de Mayumo come to life and be occasionally, if erroneously, declared the 'patron saint' of sweets. Sadly, despite this colorful story, the town is known today simply as San Miguel.

As for the confection itself, the only thing religious about it is the devotion shown by many Filipinos for its sweet taste. Pastillas de leche production is thought to be as old as the town of San Miguel and today, Bulacan remains the center of pastillas-making, with as many as 200 producers province-wide. Most of them are home-based businesses - a vestige of how the candy came about as a way for local farm families to use excess carabao milk, which spoiled very easily in the days before pasteurization. The traditional recipe calls only for milk, sugar and dayap zest (native lime) to be slowly cooked in a copper pot until the mixture is reduced to a thickened paste, which is then cooled, shaped into small 'loaves', rolled in granulated sugar and wrapped in colorful cellophane or papel de hapon (tissue paper) wrappers.

(Photo credit: Lucius Catalan/flickr)
Aficionados will insist that pastillas made with carabao's milk are the best tasting: richer, thanks to a higher fat content (compared to cow's or goat's milks), and more flavorful, with a salty undertone that heightens the sweetness. Nowadays, shortcuts abound with the use of sweetened condensed and powdered milks, while flavors and textures have gone beyond the soft, milky, hint-of-citrus original. As with so many foods in the Philippines, there seems to be a different variation of pastillas for every town or province. 

The following is just a sample of those variations:

A Parade of Pastillas

Pastillas de Ube at de Langka
from Bulacan Sweets in Quezon

Essentially flavored pastillas de leche, these are made with the addition of purple yam paste (ube halaya) and jackfruit. While the flavor of ube is lovely, I'm always more enamored of the deep violet hue it gives to food, while langka has such a delicious mango-pineapple taste that I can't resist.

(front to back) Pastillas de Langka, Ube & Leche

Pastillas de Yema
from Sevilla Sweets in San Miguel, Bulacan

It's a perfect union between two of the sweetest and most beloved Filipino confections. Pastillas are made with egg yolks, giving them a light golden color  and the rich egg custard flavor that is the hallmark of yema - an unequivocally Spanish confection that was enthusiastically adopted by sweet-tooths all over the Philippines.

Pastillas de Leche
from Rosie's Home Made in Boac, Marinduque

These pastillas are traditional in taste and texture, but are notable for their delicate shape. I can only imagine how long and with what skill it takes to roll out these impossibly slender sticks...

Pastillas de Patatas and de Kamote
from Maring's in Boac, Marinduque

In addition to the usual milk and sugar, mashed potatoes - both regular and sweet - are used in these versions. Their texture was not much different from classic pastillas, but the potatoes did impart a rather unappealing greyish tint to the candies. While I enjoyed the patatas version, the kamote had an odd, musty taste that I could not pinpoint. I wasn't a fan, but I'm willing to try from another producer if given the opportunity.

Pastillas de Leche, Zambales-style
from Gabriel & Rayn's in Nagcarlan, Laguna

Pastillas come in both a soft form and a more firm, brittle type that is achieved by cooking the mixture for a longer period of time. I learned that these candies are called Zambales-style, after the province of that name; unfortunately, I have not found any information to explain the connection. This particular product had an assertive caramel flavor and darker color than most pastillas, which leads me to wonder if it uses muscovado (unrefined brown sugar) instead of white sugar. Looks like I need to do some more research...

Mila's Pastillas de Leche
from Mila of Mogpog, Marinduque

These special pastillas were made from a family recipe and my first taste of them came during Holy Week last April, when Mila gave them as a gift. I loved them so much, she made another huge batch just for me. Spoiled! The special ingredient in this variation is coconut, but not just any coconut. Mila uses fresh bingi (meaning 'deaf'), the stage of coconut between the jelly-like buko (young coconut) and chewy niyog (firm mature coconut). Identifying a coconut at the bingi stage is left to seasoned coconut-pickers and the best chance to find one is when they are being harvested. Otherwise, they are nearly impossible to source in a grocery store. But don't despair...

Which pastilla would you like to try?

¹ Moroccan pastilla is pronounced bis-TEE-ya and is alternately spelled bstilla or bistiyya, among many other variants. It is perhaps closer in root to the Spanish word pastel, meaning 'pie'.
² Veneracion mentions pastillas de leche in reference to fiesta food; positing that it was so named for the purpose of appropriating the social cachet of the Spanish elite in colonial Philippines is my own opinion.
³ 'Everyone', that is, except for some people in the neighboring province of Pampanga, who cite the fact that the founders of San Miguel de Mayumo, where pastillas originated, planned for the town to be located in their province, as well as its partly-Kapampangan name.
Cullinane, Michael. Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898-1908. Manila: Ateneo de Manila U P, 2005. p30.

Other Sources:

Pastillas de Leche à la Mila

Confession: the gallon-sized container of Mila's pastillas that I brought back from our Easter vacation didn't make it past the end of April. She has promised to share her recipe the next time we visit, but with no such prospects in the near future, I couldn't wait. Starting with a basic no-cook recipe, I considered reasonable substitutes for the special bingi - using buko might add too much moisture that would prevent the mixture from setting firmly enough to roll, while niyog could alter the texture and make the pastillas too lumpy. Happily, I found a compromise that provides just the right amount of coconut flavor. Depending on how long it is cooked, Mila's pastillas can turn out either soft or brittle in consistency; my version yields a more fudgy texture.


1 small can (168ml) sweetened condensed milk
140g powdered milk
150g powdered coconut milk
1 Tbsp grated dayap or lime peel
1-2 Tbsps butter
granulated sugar
cellophane sheets

In a metal or glass bowl, combine condensed milk,  both milk powders and grated peel; stir well. Set bowl over a pot of gently boiling water, add butter and stir mixture until well-blended. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Refrigerate until mixture is firm enough to scoop one tablespoon and shape into small log. Roll in granulated sugar to coat then place candy diagonally on a 3"x3" square of cellophone. Wrap tightly and twist ends to secure.

Pastillas de leche will keep in the refrigerator for about two weeks.

If you'd like to try a traditional recipe, check out this recipe for classic Pastillas de Leche from the Carabaos Milk website.


  • Anonymous said...

    Wow! So many different variations of pastillas :) this looks like a fun candy! I love how spanish is mixed up with filipino culture. I don't understand when u tweet filipino but I recognize some spanish terms ;)

  • La said...

    That was such an exciting post! So much I didn't know, now I can't wait to make my own too. Thanks for the research and the list of varieties. And of course, the recipe.

    Seriously, that was a fantastic post.:)


  • Jun Belen said...

    When I was in grade school -- sixth grade if I remember correctly, before my tumultuous adolescence -- I could actually sing and was part of the school choir. I remember very well the time we sang the Mary Poppins song impromptu before a huge, huge audience. I was nervous at first but we all had a blast. I will never forget that day. But I digress. Love your piece on the beloved pastillas. There will always be a special place in my heart (and my belly) for Bulacan Sweets' pastillas de leche. The ones wrapped in white paper and then wrapped again with papel de japon. I love the creamy taste and the wonderful grit and texture of the sugar crystals. I wish I had some right now. Beautiful piece, Tracey.

  • Elizabeth of Asian in America said...

    Terrific write-up & so well researched! Love the recipes & photos. Pastillas are a family fave.Like Jun,can't forget our trips to Manila, fr Tarlac, our hometown...we always stopped for Bulacan sweets. I can still picture those wrapped boxes Mom would buy for "pasalubongs"!

  • sophia said...

    Wow this is SO fascinating!!! I love this. There needs to be a candy museum and this article should be posted up on a pillar or something. You're a great research writer, you make everything so interesting.

    I'd love to try the one with the mashed potato added in. That sounds super cool!!

  • My Life on the B-List said...

    The why of Pastillas. :) I LOVE your article! I can just imagine the time it took to put all this together. Thanks for sharing this with us! It's such a treat. A humble dessert with such a rich history. Makes me appreciate our pastillas de leche even more. :)

  • Midge said...

    I confess to being a serious pastillas junkie - then again, my father's side of the family is actually from San Miguel de Mayumo, so a craving for these sweet bits is in the blood! :D

  • Caroline said...

    It's always a pleasure to read your posts, this one on Pastillas especially since they are a favorite. I always look forward to receiving them for pasalubong. Out of all the ones you featured, I don't think I ever had the long, slender ones. I don't remember the ones by Mila so I'm glad you shared the recipe. :)

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    I know it's early but I've already decided this Christmas I'm giving away homemade candies instead of cookies this year. I'm trying to gather a variety of things and can't wait to add this to the mix...just need to find the dried coconut milk.

  • chef_d said...

    What an informative post! I used to take Valda Pastilles for my throat and of course Droste is a personal favorite :)
    I love all kinds of pastillas(okay mostly the soft ones).

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hello, everyone! I'm so happy you enjoyed this post - it gave me more than a little trouble. I had completed a draft of it late at night and intended to come back the next morning to add the photos. But I must have still been half-asleep because I inadvertently DELETED the whole post!! Fortunately, I found a portion of it cached on my browser, so I was able to rewrite it. The 'bad' part was that it came out even longer than the original! I have to learn to edit myself....

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Chef Pandita - It's so interesting to unravel what is Spanish and what is indigenous Filipino in our cuisine since they are so tightly intertwined! Glad you enjoyed the variations. 8-)

    Little Piggy - Maraming salamat! I enjoyed the research, especially the edible part. Hehe! In fact, I'm still watching out for new variations to try. I hope you do try them out. One of these days, I want to make the traditional, long method using real carabao milk - no canned or powdered ingredients. 8-)

    Alessandra - Grazie! They are indeed simple, pleasurable treats. So happy you enjoyed reading about them! 8-)

    Jun - I suspect that you can still sing! 8-) For as long as I can remember, Bulacan Sweets was synonymous with pastillas de leche - it was the only brand that my parents or relatives would bring as pasalubong when they visited in the US. My father's family is from Bulacan, so they are understandably proud of this signature candy. Honestly, it took me a while to appreciate the carabao milk flavor but now I love it! 8-)

    Elizabeth - I think that pastillas de leche is part of the Filipino DNA! I never realized how many types there were and I'm having fun discovering them. 8-)

    ***....Have to run out for bit! Will be back soon to finish up my replies to you great comments! 8-)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    I'm baaaaack....!

    Elin - The danger with these sweets is that each is mall enough for one bite and it's too easy to eat a whole bunch! 8-)

    Penny - I didn't realize myself how many variants there were, especially the potato versions. 8-)

    Kat - So many can be dangerously addictive, as I've discovered in the course of my 'research'. 8-)

    Sophia - You are too sweet! I was a bit dubious about the potato pastilla, especially since the color (actually darker than what you see here) was a bit off-putting. But the flavor and texture were quite pleasant. I'm trying to find a recipe with mashed tater to try out. Gotta say no to the sweet potato one, though. 8-)

    Michelle - Thank you and I'm so happy you enjoyed it! I accidentally deleted the completed draft and almost cried because it did indeed take a while to compile the fun facts about it. But all's well that ends well. Here's to Filipino food creativity! 8-)

    Midge - LOL! My dad is from San Raphael, Bulacan - I agree that pastillas flow in our Bulakenyo veins! 8-D

    Caroline - The slender ones were quite tasty but a whole package is equivalent to just one or two regular-sized pastillas! Next to try are the jumbo ones I see being sold at food fairs here. As for Mila's pastillas, you'll have to try the real things when you come for a visit! 8-)

    Gastroanthropologist - I do hope you'll be able to find the powdered coconut milk; I'll try to think of another substitute to suggest. And you are too good - already planning ahead for Christmas gift treats... 8-)

    Words and Nosh - Thank you! I am way to spoiled having such easy access to pastillas now. 8-)

    Chef D - Honestly, I can't decide between the soft and brittle kinds of pastillas. They both taste so wonderful when I'm eating them! As for Droste, I love clutching those boxes of chocolate... 8-)

  • Noodle's Ate said...

    Love your version of Mila's pastillas. I have fond memories of inhaling boxes of these sugar pills whenever mom or pops returned from the PI! Once again, another enriching and insightful post that warms my heart :)

  • Lori said...

    Definitely those gorgeous Pastillas de Leche! I'm always amazed at what sweetened condensed milk can be turned into. Thank goodness for my experiences abroad and for blogs like yours. Otherwise I might have stayed in my candy cubicle in the US that rarely uses the versatile (and tasty) stuff. :)

  • Annapet said...

    You are killing me, Tracey!!! I love, love your post, but made me very hungry for these treats! I love them ALL though my favorite is plain pastillas de leche from Sevilla's in San Miguel, Bulacan. They have a shop in Greenhills, I believe.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Karen - Thanks for your comment! I'm not sure I've come across to the version to which you're referring. Is it bottled pastillas de leche, like the one Market Manila wrote about, which is essentially pastillas not yet shaped and rolled into logs? There's dulce leche but that, I believe, is much different. If you know of a place where to get this, please share - I'd love the chance to taste even more pastillas de leche! 8-D


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