Mayela's Gift: Unwrapping Pastillas de Leche

This traditional Filipino milk candy, made from hard-to-source carabao milk, is sweet, tangy, and imbued with a complicated history.

pastillas de leche on a plate surrounded by candy in intricately cut wrappers, an art form known as pabalat

When I was a kid, I’d only ever get to eat pastillas de leche when my grandmother Mayela, who grew up in the province of Bulacan in the Philippines, came back to Queens from trips to visit family. The pastillas came one or two dozen to a box, individually wrapped in a delicate bond paper and another layer—paper or thin plastic, I can’t remember—over that. The pastillas themselves were humble-seeming confections, two-bite, snow-white cigars that, in their purest form, consist of nothing more than a mixture of water buffalo milk and white sugar, cooked down to a gentle solid in a metal pot, sometimes over an open fire. If you search for recipes on YouTube, as I did in a moment of desperation during a very long mourning period after my grandmother died, you’ll find good instructions for a homemade version from a Filipina lady in flipflops casually set up outdoors.

I used to think pastillas de leche were a commonplace treat in the Philippines, unavailable anywhere else; I was partly right. Felice Prudente Sta. Maria, a Philippine food and cultural historian and trustee at the Philippine National Museum, tells me that the history of this simple dessert begins with the Spanish galleon trade between Mexico and Manila. She also cross-examines me about the details of Mayela’s gift. “Was it like the consistency of a soft-ish cheese?” Yes. “Was it about the size of a half a thumb?” Also yes. “When would this have been?” The 1990s. “It all adds up,” she concludes. “Your grandmother introduced you to one of the most beautiful culinary memories any Filipino can have.”

Sta. Maria goes on to explain that there are two pastillas de leche varieties, one kind a firm “little pillow,” and the other as soft as clotted cream. Both possess a history that enhances my memories of Mayela, the affectionate, put-together grandmother from Bayside, the one with her hair done in a sweeping, progressively more cannonball-shaped updo by the same beauty parlor every week for decades.

They also reveal another side of her life before she emigrated and left her upper-middle-class family home in Plaridel in the 1950s.

Today, the softer variety of pastillas de leche are a bottled speciality at a shop in Magalang called Pabalan Delicacies, about an hour’s drive from Plaridel. “One can stand a teaspoon in the pastillas straight up and the spoon won’t tilt,” says Sta. Maria, who recommends Pabalan for both their firm and bottled “first-class” pastillas made with fresh carabao milk. At the turn of the century, this spoon-soft kind of pastillas was more widely available, served in wealthier households from an elaborate glass-and-silver contraption sent around the table at the end of the meal. Each dinner guest would receive a single spoonful as their allotment for dessert. “This probably fell out of fashion, maybe because according to etiquette it’s not that polite,” the historian theorizes, “or it’s not that sanitary, [even] just the idea of one clean spoon being dipped in. And it’s a lot better to have individual candies.”

a plate of pastillas de leche with some in hand-cut wrappers in the background

Debbie Wee

The harder pastillas I grew up eating, Sta. Maria notes, are individually wrapped in elaborate, tasseled cut Japanese paper, called pabalat in Tagalog, during festivals and other times of celebration. “A dying art,” the historian says of the paper, the origins of which are unclear, although she suspects the craft was communicated during the Victorian era, “when there was a lot of wealth in the Philippines,” and Filipinos attended school in Europe or traveled to see the 1900 Paris Exposition. “We believe it would have been around that time when the paper tassels would have become a symbol, along with the pastillas inside, of affluence, elegance, all of that,” St. Maria says. With the revelation of pastillas’ elevated origins, I had to mentally refile the treat some place far away from KitKats, the other candy Mayela used to slip me.

The Spanish colonized the Philippines beginning in 1565 and imported cattle from Mexico, then also under their control (cows were also imported around this time, possibly earlier, from China). Prior to 1603, “there are no words that are the equivalent of cheese, butter, or cream,” in any Philippine language, Sta. Maria says; the Spanish conquest and the arrival of missionaries who made their own cheese heralded the advent of dairy in the country. This seems to have also led to the native carabao, or water buffalo, being milked for the first time.

The concept of sweetening and transforming native ingredients like fruits or carabao milk into pill or tablet shapes, i.e. pastillas, was introduced by Spanish colonists “perhaps, perhaps, perhaps sometime around the late 1800s,” the historian says, when the country’s sugar industry also began to take off. But “they were nativized, interpreted in the way Filipinos preferred them. Philippine pastillas come in local flavors: carabao milk with a hint of Dayap citrus, mango, tamarind, ubi yam, etc.” In Germany, where I live, I haven’t yet dressed up my homemade pastillas with anything more adventurous than lemon zest, and only then at the behest of a recipe sent to me by Sta. Maria from Enriqueta David-Pérez’s 1953 compilation of typical national dishes, Recipes of the Philippines.

For the past few years, I’ve been making them myself. What difficult set of emotions can’t be tucked away into a niche project? Having failed to see my wheelchair-bound but completely lucid 100-year-old grandmother in person one last time at her New York nursing home, I didn’t know what to do with the sudden hate I felt for my otherwise happy expatriation to Germany, and so I smothered my regret in the flavors that described her best. The biggest obstacle to bringing forth this childhood snack from my Berlin kitchen in Mayela’s memory was the water buffalo milk, or, really, the water buffalo themselves; they’d gone extinct in Europe during the late Pleistocene, either killed off by hunters or climate change. But poring over a dozen open tabs and burrowing 10 pages deep into Google search results yielded the surprise of scientific reports about reintroducing managed herds of water buffalo in the service of German wetlands conservation, plus a farm with an online shop. I ordered five liters.

Holger Rößling, a project manager with the Brandenburg Nature Conservation Fund, oversaw the rewilding of a Brandenburg wetlands area with imported water buffalo starting in 2008. However, he believes the first German eco-initiative involving water buffalo began sometime in the 1980s. Since then, the Asian water buffalo has been imported—from France, Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria—for various eco-initiatives around the country, and their grazing is generally considered a success. “In conservation projects in wetlands, buffalo prevent nutrient-poor habitat like fens and wet meadows being overgrown by reed, typha, and grass species,” Rößling explains. “They help to keep landscapes open and conserve the presence of orchids, like Western marsh orchids or early marsh orchids, marsh trefoil, and sea aster,” which in turn supports frog and bird species. As of 2017, the latest date for which figures are available, there were 5701 buffalo in Germany. Some of the best-known reside in the Tegeler Fließ right outside Berlin, where you can go buffalo spotting, then learn more about their lives online—just don’t get attached, because they eventually become meat.

At this point, Rößling also untangles a quaint if incorrect notion I’d nurtured for some time, namely that my pursuit of a childhood memory plus my newly adopted habit of using buffalo milk in my morning lattes were playing a tiny role in making Germany wild again. Thanks to strict Central European hygiene standards for milk production, milking water buffalo don’t exactly overlap with nature preservation buffalo, the conservationist explains, though “these buffalo probably also graze small wetland areas, even if it is not an ecological preservation project.” Well, shucks. The Brandenburg farm I order from, Bobalis, includes a glamor shot of one of their herd with every delivery. The featured creature may not be the linchpin of an eco-project, but s/he certainly looks at home in the verdant German countryside, as well as very photogenic.

a water buffalo (carabao) in front of a volcano in the Philippines

Getty Images

Though on a far smaller scale than the Pleistocene, the Philippines also experienced a carabao die-off, in the middle of the last century during World War II. Typically a beast of milk or burden, “people were eating them when there was nothing to eat,” Sta. Maria says, and, after the war, pastillas production was reinvented with cheaper, more commonplace ingredients like sweetened, condensed milk and potatoes. The carabao version my grandmother introduced me to didn’t really come back until “the mid-to-late 1970s and into the 1980s, when there was a resurrection of interest in Spanish colonial Philippine cuisine,” which the historian explains was part of a broader rediscovery of the Spanish colonial era that included rekindled interest in the period’s historic churches and architecture as well as its food. “Pastillas de leche was one star item that returned to the table,” she says, though due to carabao milk’s inconsistent availability, the cheaper alternatives stuck around.

In terms of overall structure, I wouldn’t rate my German-sourced buffalo milk pastillas more than a modest success. I chalk this up to subbing an electric stove for an open fire and the milk of Bubalus bubalis (present-day Europe) for Bubalus carabenensis (Southeast Asia). Their texture is consistently grainier than what I remember from 25 years ago, and they range in color from off-white to tan. The pastillas of my childhood practically sparkled in their pallor—or maybe that’s  just the added sheen of beauty from a pleasant memory. At any rate, mine don’t sparkle, but I’m getting there in other ways. For example, I haven’t found that adding or taking away the touch of cornstarch recommended by some recipes makes much of a difference to the pastillas’ ability to hold together; I sometimes forget to switch to a folding motion when the milk finally thickens into a paste, right before the soft-ball phase, which may be the culprit for the graininess; and it took me multiple batches to figure out that a better way to pass the hour than willing liquid to evaporate faster is to stir and chat on the phone, preferably with my mom (pastillas preparation is well-suited to multitasking in a global pandemic shutdown). No matter how suboptimal my method or the recipe, however, the flavor of my pastillas has always been perfect, an exact match for the creamy animal tang of milk I remember from my grandmother’s cozy Bayside kitchen. (If, however, water buffalo milk’s funkiness fails to tempt you, or these gentle creatures have yet to debut in your local area’s animal husbandry, here you’ll find a foolproof recipe using cows’ milk and heavy cream.)

Family lore has it that my grandmother, a midwife in addition to a nurse, clandestinely rode her family’s water buffalo out by night during World War II to deliver babies. The invading Japanese army subjugated the local population through starvation, which included requisitioning their animals, but my family stashed their carabao in the jungle before he could be taken away, and they seemed to have managed to avoid slaughtering him for dinner. Still, my grandma, whom I never saw let a scrap of food go to waste, told me horrible stories about their hunger during that time. It can feel incomprehensible, the levity of a life that let me leave New York for Berlin for no real reason when I was 29, the same age my grandma was in 1945, when the war ended, when my grandfather was released, near death, from a POW camp, and Mayela was no longer forced to nurse wounded and dying enemy soldiers. My grandmother, gentle and kind until the very end of her century-long life, possessed both nerves of steel and grace. It’s unlikely I’ll find either trait at the bottom of a sticky pastillas pot, but at least during these hours of stirring, infused with the scent of a milky perfume whose natural home is very far away, I get as close as I ever will to the sweeter early periods of Mayela’s life, which I can only imagine.