End-of-year festivities in the Philippines are a time to spread love, cheer and most importantly, the gift of good food. This is the happiest season for Quezon City-born chef, Nae Dizon, whose lola Rosita Francisco's maja blanca (coconut pudding) recipe helps her connect to home.
"Having been born and raised in the Philippines, with my family's origin hailing from the food culture-rich provinces of Pampanga and Bulacan, I grew up with food all around me," Dizon says. "I was always in the kitchen observing and learning from my mother and my lola's cooking. Food was a whole family affair, and now food and cooking are in my DNA."
It was tradition for her lola, whom she calls Lola Cita, to prepare an extravagant spread of five to 10 authentic Filipino dishes for any family gathering, including their Christmas parties.
"My grandmother, every Christmas, used to make this dish called beef morcon, which is a beef roll that's stuffed with a lot of good things like sausages and potatoes," Dizon says. "She also liked doing our local version of paella, which we call arroz valenciana."
However, the best part of the Christmas feast was her Lola Cita's rich and creamy maja blanca.
"It's a very soft and smooth coconut pudding saved for special occasions," Dizon explains. "It has little bits of corn that add texture so when you bite into it, it just pops." Then it's topped with latik (coconut milk curds) for a savoury touch.
"Whenever you make maja blanca, the sweet coconutty, toasty smell of it just surrounds your whole house," Dizon says. "It's very comforting, especially for me, since I associate that with memories from back home."
"Whenever you make maja blanca, the sweet coconutty, toasty smell of it just surrounds your whole house."
Inspired by her lola, Dizon pursued a career in the culinary arts, and in 2016, after working in kitchens around the world, she arrived in Australia to continue her passion. She quickly made friends through the Filipino Food Movement Australia and was invited to cook for the movement's inaugural Mabuhay night, which aims to introduce more Australians to Filipino food.
Using seasonal, local Australian produce alongside much-loved Filipino elements, Dizon was tasked with creating a six-course meal featuring coconut, a ubiquitous ingredient in Filipino cuisine. She chose to make a maja blanca-inspired panna cotta for dessert and was proud to cook it for her newfound community.
"While I was making it, I was remembering how I watched my lola do it when I was back home, and I felt a bit homesick," Dizon says. "The process of seeing my lola squeeze the fresh coconut milk is very nostalgic for me and the smell of her cooking the coconut curds, it just embraces you."
Dizon not only inherited her lola's love of cooking but her interest in the culture and heritage of the Philippines, which is comprised of about 7,640 islands.
"Our cuisine is not as well known, compared to our neighbours in Southeast Asia," she says. "It is often mistaken or stereotyped as unhealthy or pork focused, but the truth is, it's not just all that. There is so much more to it than just adobo, lumpia and lechon."
Dizon says she wants to share her Filipino heritage with Australia, which has inspired her to create small batches of speciality, handcrafted Filipino condiments called Kusinaera.
"I want to highlight and share the flavours of my heritage and my home that evoke memories that I grew up with, and to also introduce the diverse regional flavours of my homeland that are yet to be known," she says.
"It's a piece of me that will never go away. I've moved here, but I'm still 100 per cent Filipino in every inch of me."
Filipino coconut pudding (maja blanca)
Latik (toasted coconut milk curds)
- 270 mL coconut cream
- 5 g coconut sugar
- 400 mL coconut milk
- 270 mL coconut cream
- 250 g white sugar
- 32 g cornstarch
- 300 g sweet corn kernels
- Pour coconut cream in a small pan over medium heat, stirring constantly.
- Simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated and the coconut oil begins to separate.
- Lower the heat and continue cooking until the curds become golden brown.
- Turn off the heat, strain the curds then add the sugar. Mix well. Set the latik aside and keep the coconut oil for the maja blanca mixture.
- In a small bowl, add 2 tbsp of coconut milk and the cornstarch. Mix well to create a slurry.
- Pour the rest of the coconut milk and the coconut cream into a pan over medium heat. Add the sugar and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Then, add the corn kernels and the latik coconut oil. Mix well.
- Slowly add the coconut milk-cornstarch slurry into the coconut milk-corn kernel mixture while stirring constantly. Make sure that there are no lumps.
- The mixture will slowly start to thicken. Cook and stir until you reach your desired consistency.
- Pour into a prepared mould and let the mixture sit for a few hours.
- Top the pudding with the latik. Maja Blanca is best served at room temperature.
- Fresh coconut milk is the best but good-quality canned coconut milk works well too.
- You can substitute the sugar with condensed milk for a creamier and milkier finish.
- You can use any sugar of your choice for the latik if coconut sugar is not available.
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This is the best way to use left-over steamed rice. My mum used to cook this with leftovers when I was a kid and I remember my grandma rolling it into little balls for me.