CALASIAO, Pangasinan ? Bite-sized sweet puto (steamed rice cake), popularly known as the white gold of Calasiao, has turned into precious gems with diverse, vibrant colors, attracting locals and visitors alike.
The color change comes with a variation in taste ? from the sweetness of the traditional white puto to flavors like pandan (green), ube (violet), banana (yellow), strawberry (pink) and cheese (gold).
It was Florbella Pascua, 42, owner of Bella?s Puto here, who came up with the flavored puto.
The idea, she said, came from a customer who wanted to serve colorful rice cakes during parties.
?We actually started producing colored puto four years ago, depending on orders placed by customers. [The cakes were] not flavored [then] as we only used food coloring,? Pascua said.
It was only a year ago when she started making flavored puto using extracts of banana, mango, strawberry, pandan and ube.
She said she tried creating other flavors, like melon, but these did not sell well.
Her best sellers are the cheese, pandan and ube flavors. But the original white, unflavored puto is the all-time favorite, both in stalls in Calasiao and other Pangasinan towns.
?Many customers think that the color is just because of food coloring. It is only after they have tasted our product that they buy them,? Pascua said.
The original white puto and kutsinta (another rice cake variety) is sold at P60 a kilogram (70 to 75 pieces), while the flavored ones are sold at P80 a kg. The price is higher by P15 to P20 in other areas to cover transportation costs.
Bella?s Puto, one of the biggest puto producers in Calasiao, also produces puto with fruit bits, depending on orders placed.
This is because the shelf life is shorter, unlike the original and extract-flavored puto that can be stored for three days, Pascua said.
Bella?s Puto consumes three to six sacks of rice a day to make puto, depending on the season. Peak production period is from October to January. A sack of rice can produce 8,000 pieces or 107 kg of puto.
Bella?s Puto is sold at four SM shopping mall branches ? in Sta. Mesa (Manila), Baliwag (Bulacan), Clark (Pampanga) and Rosales (Pangasinan). It is also sold in a store in Caloocan City and at the Pasalubong Center in Rosales town.
Bella?s Puto has gone a long way from the difficult days when Pascua and her five siblings started the business when they were students.
Pascua said when she was in Grade 1, she tagged along with her grandmother, Gertrudes Zamora, while she sold puto that she cooked.
?She would give me 100 pieces to sell. Customers might have been amused or they pitied me that they bought [my rice cakes],? she said.
Pascua said she learned all aspects of puto-making from her grandmother ? from grinding the rice to cooking ? in the same spot where her kitchen is now located.
?Puto-making has helped a lot, especially us, children, whose parents were almost always away on trips selling bicho-bicho [another type of rice cake],? said Pascua, the eldest of six siblings.
They were then left in the house and sometimes there was not even rice to cook. ?Even our neighbors refused to lend us some rice,? said Lisa, Pascua?s sister.
Lessons from grandma
It was their grandmother who kept the children together, teaching the older ones to cook puto and sell them in the town proper.
?It was a very little business then, sometimes not even enough for our food,? Pascua said.
?When there were unsold puto, I bartered them for a cup of bagoong [fish paste] and some vegetables so we can have something to eat,? Lisa said.
Production then was limited to several gantas (a ganta is about 2 kg) of rice because of lack of capital and the limited market.
Pascua said puto used to be sold only in the morning, from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., because people thought that after 8 a.m., these rice cakes were already spoiled.
When Pascua was in high school, a friend suggested that she sell puto the whole day every Friday in front of the Señor Tesoro Shrine. Devotees congregate at the shrine every Friday.
Soon, other puto makers followed her lead and started to sell the entire day.
It was hard work that made Pascua and her siblings succeed.
While in college, Pascua registered the name Bella?s Puto under the name of her parents, Rufo and Leonora de la Cruz.
?It was puto-making that saw us through college,? said Pascua, who finished engineering. Only one of her siblings did not complete college education.
In 1995, when the business stabilized, Pascua decided to take up units in education.
She is now a Grade 5 teacher in her village of Dinalaoan, dividing her time between her teaching chores and the puto business. Her husband, Jaime, is also a schoolteacher.
Drawing from her experience, Pascua said she would always remind her pupils that poverty was not a hindrance to success.