Why It Works
- Cooking the rice beforehand ensures soft, tender biko and no crunchy, undercooked bites.
- When making the latik, the higher fat content in coconut cream facilitates the separation of coconut curds from the oil.
- Regularly stirring the latik curds promotes even toasting and golden brown coloring.
- Muscovado sugar adds extra moisture and a complex flavor with notes of molasses and toffee.
Biko is a rich, chewy Filipino rice cake made with sticky rice, coconut milk, and dark sugar. Traditionally served in a round, shallow bamboo tray lined with banana leaves known as a bilao, biko belongs to a category of sweets called kakanin, which is made up entirely of rice cakes. The word "kakanin" stems from the Tagalog words "kain" (to eat) and "kanin" (rice), and while there are many types of kakanin, each one contains rice and coconut.
Biko is many things: it’s a dessert, an everyday snack, and a dish that’s served during special occasions, like holidays and birthday parties—I can’t imagine a family gathering without it, in part because it’s believed that eating sticky rice (also called glutinous or sweet rice) will hold families together and strengthen their bond.
Biko isn’t difficult to make, but it does require constant attention, lots of stirring, and plenty of patience. Before cooking the rice, it’s important to wash it several times to remove excess surface starch. Once it’s in the pot, I like to cover it with a clear lid, which makes it easy to see when the water is absorbed by the rice.
Biko is typically topped with latik, which can refer to one of two different coconut products: coconut curds and coconut caramel.
In the northern Philippines, latik refers to coconut curds, made by simmering coconut cream until the oil separates out and floats on top. The mixture is simmered further and stirred frequently so the curds brown evenly. Once strained, the curds have a crispy texture and toasty, coconut flavor, and they’re a common garnish for kakanin. Gooey coconut caramel, the other kind of latik, is popular in the centrally-located Visayan region. It’s made by reducing coconut milk and dark muscovado sugar (made from unrefined cane sugar) to a thick glaze.
I grew up eating biko with crunchy latik curds, but I find the sweet caramel hard to resist, so while the dish is traditionally garnished with just one version of latik, I think you can’t go wrong with having both! In my experience, you can use coconut milk to make the latik curds, but it’s easier and quicker to make them with coconut cream, and while I’ve found that you can use muscovado and dark brown sugar interchangeably for the latik caramel, I prefer the former for its intense molasses-y flavor, its high moisture content, and its ability to produce a richly-colored caramel.
Once the rice cake is baked until the caramel is hot and bubbly and it's garnished with curds, it’s best enjoyed warm or at room temperature. Fair warning: between the satisfyingly chewy rice, the gooey caramel, and the crispy curds, you’ll be hooked after one bite.
- One 14-ounce (400ml) can coconut cream (see note)
- 2 cups (14 ounces; 400g) glutinous sticky rice (see note)
- One 13.5-ounce (400ml) can coconut milk
- 1 cup (8 ounces; 230g) dark muscovado or dark brown sugar (see note)
- 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla or pandan extract (see note)
- 1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 375°F (190°C). In a 12-inch nonstick skillet, bring the coconut cream to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer. Cook, stirring every few minutes with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula, until the curds separate from the oil, smell toasty, and turn deep golden brown, about 30 minutes.
Strain curds through a fine-mesh strainer set over a small heatproof bowl; set aside, reserving strained coconut oil. Transfer the strained latik to a separate small bowl and set aside; the curds will crisp up as they cool. Clean skillet and strainer.
Grease an 8-inch square anodized aluminum pan with the reserved coconut oil (save remaining coconut oil for another use).
In a large bowl, cover rice with water by several inches. Using your hands, swish the rice in the water until water turns cloudy, about 30 seconds. Strain through fine-mesh strainer and repeat two more times.
In a 3-quart saucepan, combine the washed rice with 2 cups (475ml) water, cover, and bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to maintain a simmer, and cook until the rice is tender and water has been absorbed, about 18 minutes. Remove from heat and keep covered.
In the cleaned 12-inch nonstick skillet, combine the coconut milk, muscovado sugar, vanilla or pandan extract, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, watching constantly to ensure it doesn't boil over. Lower heat to maintain a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has formed a dark brown caramel that coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes; you should have 1 1/2 cups (14 ounces; 400g) caramel. Remove from heat.
Measure 1/2 cup (5 ounces; 140g) of the caramel and set aside. Add the cooked rice to the remaining caramel in the skillet and stir to combine. Return to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until caramel is absorbed and the biko mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
Transfer biko to prepared pan and spread in an even layer. Spread the reserved 1/2 cup caramel on top.
Bake biko until the caramel topping is hot and bubbly, about 20 minutes.
Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool, about 45 minutes. Slice into sixteen 2-inch squares. Top each square with 1/2 teaspoon of reserved latik curds before serving.
8-inch square anodized aluminum cake pan
When purchasing coconut cream, avoid ones that include stabilizers and emulsifiers in their ingredients lists, which will prevent the curds from separating from the oil.
Glutinous rice (also sold as “sweet” and “sticky” rice) can be found online or at Asian supermarkets.
Muscovado sugar is sold in many grocery stores; we prefer it for its rich molasses flavor and moisture content. If you cannot find muscovado sugar, dark brown sugar is a great substitute.
Pandan extract has a mild grassy vanilla flavor with hints of coconut. It's sold in many Asian supermarkets.
Make-ahead and Storage
To store biko, cover tightly with foil and refrigerate for up to 5 days. Reheat in the microwave in 15-second intervals.
You can also slice and freeze biko on a parchment-lined baking sheet until firm. Transfer to a zipper lock bag and store in the freezer for up to 2 months. Defrost before reheating in the microwave.
Latik curds can be used to top many other Filipino desserts. Store in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 1 week or freeze up to 1 month.