I’m rather chuffed at my first successful attempt to make a Philippine confection called pichi pichi. This easy-to-make delicacy is based on cassava and coconut. Dead simple! Cassava is Manihot esculenta, also known as manioc, yuca, or kamoteng kahoy in Pilipino. It is also sometimes called tapioca, though technically the real tapioca is from another plant — a palm. I ate pichi pichi for the first time at a Filipino gathering in Los Angeles years ago, and I risk repeating myself with my frequent sampling of novel foods — it was love at first bite. I’ve never tried to make it and the other day I had a hankering for it, prompted by a high school mate’s rice cakes. Searching online for recipes, I found them fairly straightforward. Most used just 4 ingredients — grated cassava, water, sugar, and grated coconut. Pandan flavouring is optional, but since I like the flavour and colour of pandan and my first pichi pichi were thus flavoured, I decided to have a go, with fresh or frozen leaves if I could find them, or ready-prepared essence.
Where can one find all these exotic ingredients in Bonn? Ten years ago, there was a dearth of Asian food shops; now there is a wider choice. Luckily the Thai-Viet food shop on Rosental in Altstadt had fresh pandan leaves, grated cassava (frozen) and canned thick coconut cream. The pack of pandan leaves was labelled “Pandang Blätter”. I had to ask for them because the leaves were not immediately noticeable in the misty chilling cabinet. They don’t stock bottles of pandan essence. There were frozen coconut slices which I also bought, mistaking them for grated. Later I found proper grated coconut, also frozen, at the Indian food shop behind Karstadt Department Store, near the Flower Market. This was in a 400g package, with 4 separate portions of 100g each — very convenient. The Indian food shop is more expensive than the Thai-Viet shop for similar items by a few cents, up to 1.5 Euro more for a box of powdered coconut cream, which I found rather exorbitant. I prefer to shop at the Thai-Viet shop.
I like my pastry a bit richer and decided to try using coconut cream instead of water. No other pichi pichi recipe uses coconut cream by the way. Another consideration for using coconut cream is that pastries, especially those based on rice flour, that only have water tend to get hard once refrigerated. I wanted these pichi pichi to last a day or so in the fridge without losing their desirable softness.
Those with access to fresh cassava and fresh coconut are welcome to use those and I truly envy you. But using frozen substitutes makes it easier for those of us far away from home who yearn for these delicacies.
I was amazed that the resulting pichi pichi were truly divine — a delicate green with a mild pandan flavour as I had wished. I prefer pandan not to be too assertive. My first Philippine pastry made in Bonn — and I wonder why, with my adventurous baking, I was hesitant about making these lovely pichi pichi myself. Making them was easy-pichi (sorry couldn’t resist the pun!). These take to refrigeration well, but it’s probably best to eat them as soon as they’re made or the following day.
The best bit about making these Philippine native pastries is that the aroma of pandan carried upstairs — a warm and gentle scent reminiscent of woodruff or hay. I’m so glad and grateful that these pastries came out perfectly the first time around. For those on gluten-free diets, these pastries are ideal as cassava has no gluten. And for those who want to cut down on refined sugar, honey or palm sugar (available at the Thai-Viet shop too) can be substituted.
Pichi Pichi Recipe
Makes about 15 (5cm x 3cm) pieces
250g (1 cup) frozen grated cassava, thawed and drained
250g (1 cup) thick coconut cream
1/4 cup sugar (or honey or palm sugar)
pinch of salt
Fresh pandan essence
2 leaves about 30cm long fresh pandan, finely chopped
1/2 cup water
3 or more fresh pandan leaves for steaming
200g (about 3/4 cup packed) freshly grated coconut (if frozen, thaw before use)
3 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
Mix the batter ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
Prepare pandan essence: put chopped leaves with water in a small pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for 2 – 3 minutes, or until the aroma comes wafting through. (This step can be done in a microwave.) There will be only a few tablespoonfuls of liquid. Turn off heat and let cool. Puree the pandan essence mixture in a blender, pass through a fine sieve, and add green liquid to cassava batter. Press pureed solids thoroughly to get all the green juices.
The color of the batter will be just barely green at this point — rather imperceptible — but will deepen once cooked.
Prepare the pan or bowl that fits into your steamer by lining it with pandan leaves, cutting the leaves to fit snugly at the bottom. This infuses the batter with pandan scent without overdoing it. Spoon batter over the leaves. Don’t worry about batter seeping in under the leaf layer. Place extra cut leaves gently atop the mixture. Cover the pan tightly with cling film.
Place pan in steamer and steam for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the batter sets into a translucent and solid paste. There may be a bit of clear or translucent moisture remaining in the pan. Don’t worry – this will be absorbed as the mixture cools. Let pan stand for about 15 minutes to cool.
Meanwhile put the grated coconut in a large serving plate. Test for sweetness by taking a teaspoon of the cooked cassava paste; roll it in the coconut. Taste and if needed, mix the 3 tablespoons of sugar with the coconut, or add more to your taste.
Using two tablespoons, scoop the cassava paste to an oval shape with one spoon and push it off the spoon with the other, dropping it and rolling it onto the grated coconut to completely cover it. I prefer ovals, but you may wish to shape them into balls with a teaspoon. I scraped all the paste that adhered to the leaves.
Set the finished pichi pichi to one side of the plate. Repeat with the rest of the cassava paste.
Eat at once. Any leftovers can be refrigerated, tightly covered with cling film; best eaten within 2 days.
Notes: If you don’t have a steamer, improvise with a wok or large pot with a cover. Place a rack to set your pan on. Add hot water but ensure that the boiling water does not touch the bottom of the pan. Top up with additional hot water during steaming.
Some recipes use commercial pandan essence — add just a few drops, mindful that the color will deepen with cooking. The pichi pichi from this recipe are delicately green and have a mild pandan flavour. The pandan flavour becomes more pronounced the next day.
Serving suggestion: serve with warm or hot coconut cream.