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Bohulano Family Binangkal

During Thanksgiving week, I updated my Facebook status with a list of what I was making for my family feasts: lumpia, pansit, suman, pumpkin cheesecake, sweet potato pie, and binangkal. The chef/author/food scholar Amy Besa posted a question: “What is binangkal?” So I posted a photo. Several friends, many of them second and third generation with roots in the Visayas, reacted quickly and rapturously to my binangkal photo, thrilled that Facebook love had been given to an obscure regional treat beloved across the Visayas and wherever in the world Visayans settled. My writer friend Rashaan Alexis Menesis posted: “My grandpa used to make these! Sob.” “My Mom n Dad been bringin these home after every Bohol Circle meeting since..forever,” wrote third generation Bay Area Boholano, Anthony Caybut. “That's my mom's specialty,” wrote my old friend Carlo Bacor of Mindanao, whose family roots are in the Visayas. “I know how to make it too lol.” “Post the recipe!” asked Delvina Modesto, whose father was from Carcar, Cebu. “My Grandma Annie used to make these and have them waiting for me when I would come over to visit,” wrote my friend Christine Miculob Ainza, whose brother-in-law is chef Dominic Ainza of Mercury Lounge. “I'm sad that she passed without me learning.” The outpouring of binangkal love and nostalgia surprised and warmed me.

Binangkal is a sesame-covered baking powder donut, deep fried until crisp and brown on the outside and pillowy on the inside. When made well, its surface is craggy, brown and caramelized from the hot oil, its insides moist and fluffy. A popular snack in Cebu and the Visayas, it has look-alikes in Chinese dim sum restaurants and bakeries, which is a clue that binangkal may have some Chinese influence. If flashier desserts like mango chiffon cake and silky leche flan are the O.A. prom queens of the Filipina/o American dessert table, regional treats like binangkal and the anise-scented cake torta are the humble, homely, and dependable wallflowers. Pretty turon glistening with a caramel crust may get more attention, but binangkal has integrity. Affection for binangkal was strong amongst early Visayan immigrants and their families. All of the ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar, oil, sesame seeds from Chinatown) were easily available.

In 2008, my husband Jesse (a Manila native who had never seen a binangkal until we began dating) and I spent a week in Cebu City. On a food a culture tour led by a sweet guide named Mike, I tasted binangkal made in a town outside of Cebu City that laid claim to the biggest shoe in the world (Sorry, Marikina). At a snack stand, he bought us a plastic package of binangkal, each barely bigger than a ping-pong ball. I eagerly stuffed one into my mouth, then proceeded to nearly break my tooth. I protested that binangkal should be like a soft, sweet, crispy donut. “Binangkal is meant to be food that you can take into the fields with you,” Mike admonished me. “You bring a bunch of these hard little balls, which last for a long time, for your lunch. Then you drink a lot of water, and then they expand, now you’re full.” Binangkal’s trip to America transformed them from hardy food for the fields to rich party fare. How American were my family’s binangkal: sizeable, pillowy balls full of abundance, enriched with large eggs, copious amounts of brown sugar, rich canned cow’s milk, vanilla, and Bisquick. More on that later.

My grandmother, Cebu City native Concepcion Moreno Bohulano, a highly skilled and creative cook who loved both Philippine and American cuisine, probably learned how to make binangkal from the family cooks as a young girl growing up in Cebu City. Grandma Conching loved making desserts and snacks for her family. At a dance during World War II, she met Delfin Bohulano, a Filipino American soldier with the US Army’s First Filipino Infantry Regiment who was serving near her family’s ancestral home in Palompon, Leyte. They married, and my uncle and mother Christine were born. In 1952, the Bohulanos left the Philippines to settle in rural Tracy, California, near Stockton, the Filipino American Capital. There, racism restricted my college-educated grandparents to the only jobs available to them: Grandpa was a farm labor contractor and Grandma worked in the local peach cannery and in the fields.

Somehow, Bisquick made its way into our family recipe in the 1950s. Perhaps one day my grandmother ran out of flour and baking powder, and, like many other homemakers in the 1950s, subbed in the mass-produced convenience product and liked the results. Or she might have traded notes with another wily Visayan war bride who didn’t mind bucking tradition to add American ingredients to improve a traditional recipe. My uncle Delfin Bohulano remembers that Grandma often made binangkal as a snack, even after a long day in the peach cannery, or, in the 1960s, after a long day as a public school teacher. It was an every day kind of snack, rarely made for special occasions, holidays, or parties. Only later, when life became busier, did they show up at parties and holidays. By the 1970s, my mother Christine had inherited the mantle of Binangkal Maker. One afternoon at Grandma’s dining room table, I listened as a handful of neighborhood aunties heaped compliments on the binangkal. My grandmother gave her oldest daughter the ultimate compliment. “She makes them even better than I do,” my grandmother told her comadres. I beamed with pride for my mother, a good cook whose dishes were often overshadowed by Grandma’s almost supernatural cooking prowess.

Binangkal requires time, patience, and a strong arm. When Grandma and Mom made binangkal, they mixed by hand. Raw binangkal dough is so sticky and stiff that it laughs at rickety hand mixers. I can still see Mom standing over a large bowl, sweating and stirring. She always let me lick the bowl. I’m the family’s binangkal maker now. Today, I can whip up a batch of binangkal in minutes with my heavy duty Kitchenaid 6 quart stand mixer. And while I know that the most authentic binangkal recipes don’t use Bisquick, I don’t mess with a good thing. When the dough is turned out of the mixer, I must still do what my mother, grandmother, and all of my Visayan ancestors did before me: I sit down at the table in my tiny San Francisco kitchen, lightly dip my hands in beaten eggs, scoop up an egg-sized ball of sticky dough, roll that ball into sesame seeds, then place the ball onto wax paper. Life slows down and my heart rate slows. I put on NPR, and after an hour, I have neat rows of glistening, sesame-flecked balls.

When I make binangkal, I imagine my Grandma, just home from her job canning peaches, sweating in a tiny farmhouse kitchen in Tracy, California, stirring eggs into canned milk, brown sugar and vanilla. I see my mother in her 1970s caftan, thoughtfully reducing the brown sugar in the recipe for her diabetic father-in-law, my binangkal-loving Lolo Ambo, then quietly and methodically rolling the balls, frying them over a low flame until they explode into crispy balls of love.

I don’t bring binangkal to gatherings of mostly Tagalog or Ilocano post-1965 immigrants, or their children, because I get blank stares and questions and all my hard work seems wasted. But when every time I bring them to gatherings in my hometown of Stockton, a center of pre-1965 Visayan immigration, I get the same nostalgic sighs, like the ones on Facebook last month. “Binangkal!” friends and strangers exclaim, sometimes a little teary. And the stories of loving Visayan grandmothers and mothers, and even Lolos, hunched over bowls of dough and vats of oil, commence.

Bohulano Family Binangkal

Sift together dry ingredients:
7 ½  cups all purpose flour
3 cups Bisquick baking mix
6 tsp baking powder

Combine in a large, separate bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer:
6 eggs, beaten
1 can evaporated milk
½ cup whole milk
3 tbs vanilla

2 cups sesame seeds
Vegetable oil for frying
1- lb brown sugar to the eggs and milk and vanilla and stir well until sugar is dissolved.

Add the dry mixture a little at a time until you get a soft, sticky dough. Let the dough rest at least an hour, or overnight in the fridge. Dough will last at least 3-4 days in the fridge. Let it come to room temp before rolling. To roll, first dip very clean hands into a mixture of beaten eggs and a little water. Scoop up an egg-sized ball of dough and roll until round and smooth. Roll into a shallow dish of sesame seeds and then place on wax paper sprayed with cooking oil or oiled.

Use a large wok or wide, deep frying pan. Heat at least 3 inches of oil to medium low. Don’t be tempted to heat the oil up high – you’ll only burn the outside and leave the inside raw. It will take a while – up to 5 minutes or more, for the binangkal to begin to puff up and cook. The hot oil reacting with the baking powder will cause it to crack open in little fissures all over the binangkal – this is what you want. Keep turning them. The binangkal is done when it is a caramel brown all over. Be patient. You’ve already burned up a whole afternoon rolling these things, so stand there and think about Filipino American history.

Serve warm preferably. Best on the same day. This recipe makes two half-size aluminum steam pans full. It will feed a lot of people, especially if placed on a dessert table in which carioca/cascaron/bitsu-bitsu steals all the attention. That’s ok. More for you.

Photos by Dawn Mabalon.

© Dawn Bohulano Mabalon

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