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Great Green Grains

When the Philippine dry season arrives around mid-November, cool winds supplant the previous months’ lashing rains. In Pampanga, a mostly rural province about an hour’s drive north of Manila, the chill in the air signals the imminent arrival of a local delicacy: duman, young glutinous rice that’s washed, roasted and repeatedly pounded to produce milky green grains with a delicate grassy flavor.

Harvested and processed through the end of December, duman is usually eaten with fresh carabao (water buffalo) milk for breakfast or stirred into tsokolate (drinking chocolate made with Philippine cacao). In Santa Rita, a Pampangan municipality and the epicenter of duman production, the eagerly awaited specialty is honored annually with its own festival.

Years ago, during duman season, Santa Rita’s streets rang daily with the “tok-tok” of baseball bat-sized wooden pestles hitting meter-high mortars as lacatan malutu, a red-husked variety of glutinous rice, was transformed into duman. Nowadays, only a few barangay (the smallest Philippine administrative unit, something along the lines of a district or village) engage in the laborious and time-consuming production process.

Most Filipinos have never tasted duman. Once word gets out that harvest is near, in-the-know locals place their orders, leaving little for the open market. And it’s expensive — up to 30 times the cost of regular rice per kilo. Yet Santa Rita’s duman producers, motivated less by profit than by the desire to keep a local tradition alive, do little better than break even after covering production costs.

“It’s a matter of barangay pride, to maintain a culinary heirloom and produce the best duman of the year,” explains Erlita Mendoza, a researcher at the Center for Intercultural Studies of the University of Santo Tomas in Pampanga and an expert on the province’s food culture.

Filipino communal effort

Two years ago, while spending Christmas with a Filipino friend in Arayat, a town not far from Santa Rita, I joined Mendoza to observe a day of duman making. The tradition embodies bayanihan, a Tagolog term that describes communal effort in pursuit of a common goal (taken from the word bayan, which means community, town or nation). From the landowners who dedicate a portion of their paddy to the slow-growing (and thus less profitable) lacatan malutu, to the laborers — called magduruman — who usher the grain from stalk to finished product, to the skilled roasters and owners of the facilities in which the rice is processed, the making of duman is truly a collective effort.

Lacatan malutu is planted between May and August — but never harvested before the cool season. “This sort of rice waits for coldness to bring it to life,” Mendoza said.

It’s ready to be harvested when a broken grain emits milky liquid and feels soft and chalky on the tongue. Moisture is key, so work begins pre-dawn, while stalks are still heavy with dew and before the grains are dried by the sun. The magduruman harvest by hand, pulling the stalks taut and slicing them with a sickle, bundling and then loading them into a jeepney for transport to the processing facility.

On this day, the duman will be made in a cement-floored, corrugated metal-roofed shed attached to the house of Santa Rita resident Victor Galang, the third generation in his family to be directly involved in its production.

“It’s a part of my family’s history, but making duman is also a Santa Rita tradition,” Victor says proudly. “My children will continue after I’m gone.”

Preparing duman: Technology gives way to time

Victor’s shed looks much as it did when his granddad oversaw the process. At the rear, sun streams through a rectangle cut in the roof, shining on two stone hearths where wood fires will heat the pot-bellied clay ovens in which the rice is roasted. Off to the side is a room for winnowing. Behind that is the “wet room,” where unroasted rice is washed. At the facility’s entrance, pride of place gives its only nod to the 21st century: A wood-framed, gas-powered thresher built by Victor, a machinist and auto parts dealer.

Strewn with rice stalks, the shed smells like a meadow after a spring shower. About 8 a.m. the magduruman begin threshing by beating small bundles of stalks against a wall to dislodge mature grains (they’ll be made into pinipig, dried and flattened young rice that has similar iterations in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia). One magduruman mans the thresher, holding beaten stalks against its powerful rotating drum, which send green-gold grains and lengths of stalk flying into the air.

Outside are two women in their 70s — one is Victor’s elder sister, the other a cousin — dressed in plaid shirts and broom skirts. They winnow the threshed rice by hand with a bamboo sieve, which they move back and forth between them. Grains fall through the gaps onto a plastic tarp, leaving stalks in the tray (they’ll become carabao fodder). The process is repeated several times with finer and finer sieves.

Finally, the women position themselves in front of an electric standing fan, raising bamboo trays to head height. Tipping them forward, they spill grains onto the tarp as the chaff blows free. The rice will now be soaked for about 30 to 60 minutes; hulls will rise to the surface of the water and be skimmed off before the rice is roasted.

In the back of the shed, the roasters are stoking their hearths with branches of kaimito (a type of sugar apple), an especially long and hot-burning wood. Duman roasting is a skill passed among relatives — from father to son (and sometimes a daughter), or uncle to nephew. These men play a central role in the process, for it’s their work that most influences the quality of the final product: Cook the rice too long and the duman will taste burnt or be too brittle to withstand repeated pounding without breaking; cook not long enough and the husks will stick to the grains.

The clay ovens are placed atop the hearths and preheated before receiving a batch of wet rice. As the grains turn from green to a reddish brown and a nutty aroma fills the shed, the roasters stir and flip the rice with long-handled ladles to ensure even roasting. They test doneness — achieved after about 45 minutes to an hour — by rolling a few grains between their fingers to gauge dryness and to see how easily the husks come off.

Magduruman’s rhythmic racket

About 2 p.m., after the roasted rice has cooled and the magduruman have fortified themselves for the most strenuous part of the process with a big lunch and a nap, the floor of the shed is swept clean and asung (mortars) and alung (pestles) assembled at its center. The men each grab a pestle and take their places in threes around the mortars.

Bracing with one leg forward, knee bent, they raise alung to head height and then, in quick succession, bring them straight down into the asung. Pulling back, they hit the pestle against the lip of the mortar, raise it again high, and repeat in alternation. The rhythmic double tok-tok of each cycle bounces off the shed’s walls and travels from the floor up through the soles of my feet, yet it’s soothing rather than jarring. After three minutes, work stops long enough for the pounded grains to be replaced with fresh ones, then starts up anew.

As the magduruman pound out their beat, Victor’s cousin and elder sister again winnow, sending husks flying by tossing grains from rattan trays high into the air. The process — pounding followed by winnowing — will be repeated five, six, seven or however many more times are necessary to rid all traces of husk and polish the grains smooth.

My stamina can’t match that of the magduruman, Victor, and his relatives; I leave at 6 p.m. The next day I learn that work continued until after 8 p.m., when finally the grains were separated into three lots: broken, crushed and whole. Only the latter are considered desirable enough to be sold as duman.

Taste it for yourself

You can taste duman at Santa Rita’s Duman Festival (doable as a long day trip from Manila), which is held in the town square on the first Saturday of every December. Butchie’s Recipes of la Moderna (Ground Level Health Cube Building, 226 Wilson Street, San Juan City, Pampanga) also has a small amount for sale but it goes quickly.

If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on duman, it can be stored — tightly wrapped in plastic and foil — in the freezer for several months.

Zester Daily contributor  David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.comRobyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.

All photos by David Hagerman


Zester Daily contributors based in Malaysia, journalist Robyn Eckhardt and photographer David Hagerman collaborate for publications such as New York Times Travel and Wall Street Journal Asia. Their food blog EatingAsia was named Editor's Choice for Culinary Travel in the 2014 Saveur Blog Awards. "Istanbul and Beyond," their first cookbook, is forthcoming from Rux Martin Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Follow them on Twitter at @EatingAsia and @DaveHagerman and on Instagram at @davehagerman.