Ampaw. Popped rice. Puffed rice. “Popcorn.” All these are names for this rice snack made from rice, a bit of syrup, and the hot power of the sun. Much prized by children -- and adults -- before the advent of junk food and other modern snacks, it still survives today.
Traditionally, families made these by hand, with the rice painstakingly cooked and then dried in bilaos or round trays made of bamboo. Sometimes, leftover rice was used instead of fresh rice in order to stretch the usefulness of the day’s rations. The addition of arnibal or brown sugar cooked down in a bit of water to make a kind of simple syrup or caramel glaze, a few minutes of stirring and working the resulting mass into balls with your hands, and you had a quick and filling treat which, when wrapped with banana leaves, you could take with you to share with your friends on hot summer afternoons of playing taguan or even on your travels to visit relatives in the next barrio over. Some families also made these with white syrup and shaped them into blocks that resemble thick pieces of rough tile. With the advent of machinery and new techniques to make production easier, though, it has become rare to find families that still make these the traditional way. Some companies have even refined their ampaw-making process further by adding food coloring and flavoring to their mixes, resulting in multi-colored balls with sometimes rather alarming shades of violet, green, red, yellow, and blue.
I remember trying to make these rice balls at home with my mom and my kuya when I was a child. I say “trying,” because we never were able to figure out why our rice balls and bricks never came out looking the way the ones sold in the sari-sari stores and palengkes did. Try as we did, we more often than not ended up with hard rice bits drenched in syrup, or, worse yet, hard rice bits with a little sugar added. Not that they tasted bad, but it was a bit of challenge munching through all the hard rice. We eventually gave up trying to make ampaw and settled for buying some for a few centavos a ball. I guess ampaw making wasn’t my mom’s strong suit. ?
Time passed and the ampaw balls of my childhood became nothing more but a distant memory for me, only occassionally remembered when someone came home from a trip to the province with a pack of the rice bricks as pasalubong. I wasn’t even aware that these were still sold in the metro until I ran into an ambulent vendor selling these on the streets of Cubao this morning. He had two big sacks of these with packs of ten balls selling for P10 a pack, quite a mark-up from the few centavos of my childhood. Still, I promptly bought some and took them home to set up for a quick photo session.
Setting up for the shoot proved to be a bit of a challenge, not because the ampaw balls were difficult to work with, but because my family could hardly keep their hands off my set-up long enough for me to take a picture! Even my sixty-plus year old father’s face lit up when he saw the goodies being arranged for the shot. “Uy, ampaw!” he said, and proceeded to steal a ball from my carefully arranged plate-ups before I could protest. My two nephews, eager for some of the ampaw, volunteered to be my “crew” for the shoot, on the condition, of course, that they got “paid” with the ampaw after the shot. I readily agreed, secretly pleased that they were still so eager to have some of this old-fashioned snack despite the abundance of chips and such on the market today.
The shot over, the props put away, and watching three generations sitting around the lunch table happily munching on their ampaw desserts, I couldn’t help but smile. I guess this was a classic case of that old adage, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
The word ampaw has somehow devolved over the years into street lingo for a blowhard or for someone who is full of hot air, the parallelism, I suppose, coming from the ampaw’s deceptively solid appearance.
Ampaw is a close homonym of the Chinese noun Ang Pao, a small red envelope containg a cash gift given by Chinese parents to their family members on Chinese New Year’s Day.
Taguan – hide and seek
Barrio – small village or hamlet
Kuya – older brother
Sari-sari store – small neighborhood store selling a variety of everyday goods
Palengke – traditional wet and dry goods market