Wednesday, December 26, 2007


If the Tagalogs have their tira-tira, the Ilocanos have their balicutsa or balicutya. And while the former are in stick form, the latter are shaped like curlicues; both are sugar candies made from sugarcane.

Tira-tira I had a lot of as a kid. It was always readily available at Manong's sari-sari store in the neighborhood. But the balicutsa I tasted for the first time only recently when a friend gave me a pack this Christmastime. It's incredibly sweet and tastes very much like a piece of panocha. As many know, panocha is a sort of brown sugar that is crystallized with limewater and poured into a coconut shell until it hardens. It is then cut into smaller pieces and used primarily to sweeten a cup of tea or when frying those banana-cues or kamote-cues.

And unlike the panocha and tira-tira which is available year-round, the balicutsa is only plentiful after a sugarcane harvest. Incidentally, you don't bite into a balicutsa as done with a tira-tira stick. You simply allow the whole piece to melt in your mouth. A sip of water is recommended immediately afterwards so as to wash away the excessive sweetness from the palate.

So while a typical holiday buffet table may be loaded with the usual sugary fare such as the creamy fruit salad, ubiquitous rice cakes, traditional leche flan, and various sweetened pastries from Goldilock's or Red Ribbon, a plate of balicutsa could certainly elicit just as much much curiosity, especially from the kids with a sweet tooth if not from the older folks with fond memories attached to it.

Now, for a bit of the sugarcane's history:

In the beginning, sugar is believed to have been widely used in Polynesia, and then in India. The Persians discovered it when Emperor Darius of Persia invaded India In 510 B.C. The Persians kept sugarcane a closely guarded secret as they amassed exorbitant profits from exporting its products.

When the Arabs invaded Persia in 642 A.D., they found its sugarcane fields and eventually learned how sugar was made. The Arabs were responsible for developing its early refining process and for establishing sugar production in other lands that they conquered, including North Africa and Spain. It was also the Arabic writers who first documented the sugarcane's refining process.

The western Europeans discovered sugar in the 11th Century AD when crusaders returning home talked of this "new spice" with a pleasant taste. The first time sugar was recorded in England was in 1099. Subsequently, the country's importation of which developed and grew when it established trade with the East. Records also indicate that the price of sugar in London was at two shillings a pound in 1319 A.D., which equates to about US$100 per kilo at today's prices. Obviously, a purchase affordable only by the rich.

The Chinese, on the other hand, as early as around 1800 B.C. was already cultivating the sugarcane. Sugar had become a popular part of the Chinese culture when some of its products were created as wedding and holiday gifts. It was also the early traders of China who were responsible for introducing sugar to its neighboring countries.

Sugar supposedly reached the Philippines when a sailing vessel from Celebes brought sugarcane to Mindanao some 4,000 years before the Christian era. However, no hard evidence is available to support such claim. Neither is there any verifiable record as to when sugar making came to the knowledge of the Filipinos.

However, according to the chronicles of Pigafetta, when Magellan arrived in the Southern Philippine islands in 1521, the natives, headed by Rajah Calanao, served them refreshments made of sugarcane. The same thing happened to other Spanish explorers in Northern Luzon.

New World sugar later came about when the Portuguese and Spanish navigators introduced the cultivation of sugarcane in the 15th Century, and it was generally presumed that it was the Spaniards who introduced the Filipinos to its cultivation as a means to minimize the importation expenses from China.

Yet sugar was not produced in the Philippines for quite some time because it was being imported from Mexico until the early 16th century.
It wasn't until the early 17th century when sugar plantations began to emerge throughout the Philippines and became a thriving industry. And with the proliferation of the local sugar supply, the foothold of the Chinese on the sugar market declined. During that period, the Chinese sold rock sugar called cande for 8 reales per 25 pounds, which was a steep price back then.

Nowadays, although its price would go up now and then, sugar remains affordable by the general public. And contrary to common belief, eating too much sugar does not cause diabetes. But eating too much of it can cause obesity which can trigger the development of type 2 diabetes in some people.

However, much like opiates and nicotine, sugar is highly addictive. And the only thing good about sugar -- as some practitioners in the medical field will point out -- is that it tastes good. Hence some of our medicines, including most of our cuisines (besides the sweet desserts), wouldn't be as palatable without their sugar content.

Sadly, however, some historians claimed that the most brutal slave trade in the history of man -- in massive scale across international waters -- was boosted by
the growing demand for sugarcane products.

* * *

Additional sources and related links:

By Diana A. Galang
Manila Bulletin

Making Rock Candy
EntrePinoys atbp.

The History of Sugar

Revolt and Social Unrest
Heritage City of Vigan

The Sugar and Slave Trade
The European Voyages of Exploration


posted by Señor Enrique at 6:39 AM


Blogger nutart said...

A cozy picture as always, Eric!

Very informative post indeed! There is a recent expose also on African coffee. Much like sugar, a lot of slavery (even up to now!) comes with the commodity.

Also apt kasi today, we and our neighbor has been talking about the sugar consumption of Filipinos comparing to that of Germans (for instance)are still sweet-tooth. Even our spaghettis as well as catsups are sweet compared to our international counterparts.

December 26, 2007 11:15 AM  

Blogger luna miranda said...

The balicutsa in your photo looks delectable! :D Our version in Negros is called 'butong-butong'---'butong' in Ilonggo means 'pull'. The cooked sugar is pulled again and again from a pole to make it more pliant until this sweet, toothsome candy is formed into any shape the kids wanted.

Thanks for the sugarcane's history. For somebody who grew up around sugarcane, your blog has a saccharine appeal.:D

I'm not surprised that sugarcane is connected to slavery---it's still happening in Negros and some parts of the country. The hacienderos are just just sugar-coating the issue!

December 26, 2007 2:19 PM  

Anonymous pam said...

I ate a lot of these as a kid whenever I spent my vacation in my lola's house in Ilocos Sur. :) Napakatamis nga nito. It's a great dessert.

December 26, 2007 2:33 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Now that's interesting, Luna, because the Spanish word for pull is "tirar." So I've a feeling the name tira-tira was derived from it.

Balicutsa, according to my friend is also prepared in the same manner -- by being pulled from both ends.

Slavery is still happening in Negros? Whoa! Supposedly, the sugarcane farmers of the Dominican Republic are also still complaining of slave wages. Darn!

December 26, 2007 2:37 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

I think sugar consumption is just as equally astonishing in other parts of the globe, Bernadette. And the reason: sugar just tastes good. However, I don't really enjoy the sweetened Pinoy spaghetti sauce or catsup.

Thanks for mentioning coffee slavery. Perhaps, this is a good enough reason for us to buy more locally-produced barako coffee. Hence more Figaro coffee than Starbucks, perhaps ... hehehe.

December 26, 2007 2:41 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

I did get some sort of a sugar rush when I ate one, Pam. And what immediately came to mind was "panocha!" I like balicutsa, but I have to seriously tame myself since I've eliminated table sugar (sucrose) from my diet a few months ago.

I think I've forgotten the taste of tira-tira. But I remember it as being sweet ... very sweet.

December 26, 2007 2:47 PM  

Blogger NOYPETES said...

I spent a lot of my childhood in my father's sugar cane farm in Negros. Thanks to luna miranda for mentioning "butong-butong", a favorite when I was a kid. Going to the farm cooperative for "Bandi" the local peanut brittle and "Pinasugbo" made with raw sugar from the farm was something I used to look forward to in the afternoon after a long nap. Thanks for sharing sweet history with your readers!

December 26, 2007 3:29 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Supposedly, in Ilocos, Pete, balicutsa is for the kids while the basi is for the adults .... hehehe.

I also love those popular peanut brittle which one can buy almost at any large supermarket here in the city; Quiapo also has an ample supply. But the balicutsa, I must admit, I've never seen or heard of before until my friend gave me a pack :)

December 26, 2007 5:13 PM  

Anonymous rhodora said...

I come from Region I, the Ilocos Region, but I am not familiar with "balicutsa". However like you, as a kid, I used to snack on tira-tira, despite my mom's disapproval as she said it was not good for the teeth.

Incidentally, my own kids also had a taste of the tira tira when they were still little.

Peanut brittle, I believe, originated from Mangaldan, Pangasinan - Romana Peanut Brittle owned by the De Vera family.

I love peanut brittle but I try to avoid it because once I start eating, I can't stop. hehehe. I think it's the butter ingredient that makes it very flavorful. Hindi nakakasuya ang pagka-matamis niya. :)

December 26, 2007 11:19 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

My friend's sister from Carmen, Pangasinan said she hasn't seen or tasted balcutsa, either, Rhoda. But she's quite familiar with tira-tira and panocha (which they call "tagapulot").

I love peanut brittle as those similar candies but with sesame seeds instead of peanuts. Romana Peanut Brittle, eh? I'll check it out ... hehehe.

My aunt in Subic refers to desserts as "pangpa-alis suya."

December 27, 2007 7:34 AM  

Anonymous lino said...

masarap yang panucha...:)
btw, i bought a copy of imag and saw your name and your pic in the critique area, i always believe that your forte is still life, you always know how to composed your subject with warm lighting... congrats! :)

December 27, 2007 9:49 AM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

When I came back to visit Manila for the first time, Lino, my brother Taba asked for only one thing to bring him back - a panocha ... hahaha!

Hey, thanks! You've just reminded me to blog about Imag's still life feature. Will do it next :)

December 27, 2007 10:22 AM  

Blogger luna miranda said...

The panocha in Negros has whole peanuts in it, as Pete mentioned...we call it 'bandi'. I think panocha is made from muscovado, while balicutsa is made from brown sugar and coconut milk.

By the way, I bought a copy of Imag vol. 11 last November but didn't see your name there, Eric. :D I guess, I bought the wrong issue. I'm buying my first DSLR in January and I'm pretty excited!

December 27, 2007 1:53 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

This is wonderful! My nephew also emailed to say he got a Nikon D40 as Christmas gift for himself! Advised him to take at least a basic class just so he can enjoy his new hobby even more.

It's i-Mags Volume 12, Luna -- Stll Life is its main feature. You got the older issue :(

Good luck with your dSLR and we hope to see awesome pics from you soon, including that of a panocha with whole peanuts in it. Never seen such kind before :)

December 27, 2007 3:34 PM  

Blogger Francesca said...

that candies, reminds me when I was in elementary school, i ate that with cooked rice!

sarap, almusal ko yan, with kapeng barako
opps, age revelation, hehe

December 28, 2007 6:51 AM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Based on your comment, you have got to be nearing 30 by now, Francesca :)

Speaking of barako coffee, seems like Vietnam had surpassed us as being a significant producer of this particular variety of coffee.

December 28, 2007 7:44 AM  

Blogger Dinda said...

I like this cake too,more delicious if with hot milk coffee

December 29, 2007 10:19 AM  

Blogger g_mirage said...

Im tagalog SenorE but I know balikutsa as well...I eat a lot as a kid...inviting photo...wants me to grab it! =)

December 30, 2007 3:44 AM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Now, that sounds delish, Dinda ... with milk. Water was a good enough chaser for me.

Interestingly, long after the balikutsa had all been eaten, many folks in the house still talk about it ... hehehe.

December 30, 2007 7:00 AM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Thanks, G. Mirage!

Tira-tira was the only thing we had as kids. We didn't have it in Subic, either; only panocha :)

December 30, 2007 7:02 AM  

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Life in Manila as observed by a former New Yorker who with a laptop and camera has reinvented himself as a storyteller. Winner of the PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS: Best Photo Blog in 2007 and three Best Single Post awards in 2008.


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