"Hanging rice" is the English term Cebuanos apply to something called puso, which is, essentially, boiled rice. But leaving it at that is like dismissing fettuccine as noodles. Puso is rice, yes, but it is more than that; puso is an integral part of the barbecue culture of Cebu, and I would go so far as to call it an art. Puso is to the Cebuano what the baguette is to the Parisian, or the bagel is to the New Yorker. This page is my wholy inadequate tribute to puso.
It should be noted that while people barbecue all over the Philippines, barbecuing has evolved into a major culture only here in Cebu. No suprise, then, that puso are unique to Cebu. For the citizens of Manila, puso are just as exotic as they are to you. Well, almost.
Essentially, puso is rice wrapped in woven strands of palm frond. A large bundle of small packets is tied together, and that's why puso are referred to as hanging rice in English. The advantages of puso over rice cooked in the traditional way are manifold. Puso evolved centuries ago, and to this day the woven palm leaves remain a viable form of packaging. The rice is kept free of dust and insects, and the packaging material is completely natural and biodegradable. The fact that the rice is packaged is the crucial driving element which provides the raison d'etre for puso. If you think about it, puso are all about efficiency and productivity.
Think of it at outsourcing. Since the rice is packaged, it can be delivered. This means that, instead of having to cook the rice yourself, you can concentrate on barbecuing and serving your customers, while someone else delivers the rice. It may seem inefficient to wrap rice in leaves and then boil it, but the reverse is true thanks to the extra margin of productivity generated by the division of labor and the benefits of mass production. Incredibly, this concept of outsourcing rice production was invented long before the term "outsourcing" - before the Spaniards arrived in this part of the world, in fact.
An additional factor is that rice served in the form of puso has, by definition, been divided into standard units. This allows quick and easy accounting between suppliers and restorateurs, as well as between restorateurs and customers. Each puso delivered by the same supplier is exactly the same size.
So how large is one puso? One packet is slightly smaller than a handful, and usually one bundle of hanging rice is comprised of 25 packets. Now, the concept of universal standards hasn't quite taken off yet in the Philippines, and the size of a single packet of puso varies from supplier to supplier. At some inexpensive eateries the puso may be small enough to comprise a single mouthful, whereas in the classier barbecue restaurants only two may suffice for a meal. However, while the size of a packet varies from supplier to supplier, the packets produced by a single supplier are all exactly the same size.
Usually, one puso retails for between 2 and 3 pesos. If the cost of rice, energy, labor, and transportation is taken into account, this is incredibly cheap. Puso are proof that traditional craftsmanship - we're talking about the weaving of palm leaves here - can stay competitive in contemporary times. I've tried calculating an estimate, and it's clear that puso producers rely on razor-thin margins. The market is large, and competition between manufacturers is intense.
Puso are eaten almost exclusively with barbecue. I've never seen or heard of anyone eating puso with, for instance, beef stew. In fact, barbecue restaurants are the only places you can get puso. Expensive restaurants do not serve puso, and you can't buy puso in shops. Now, barbecue is eaten with the hands, and the fact that the rice in puso has been compacted in to a fairly hard mass makes it easy to eat with your fingers. That's another advantage.
Unlike boiled rice, which stays tasty for only a few hours at most, puso keeps for about a day. Puso are usually delivered just prior to the start of business - proving that the JIT principle was invented not by Japanese auto manufacturers but in Cebu - and hung up somewhere in the eatery. When ordered by a customer, the packets are sliced on one side with a knife. This is the only way to get at the rice inside; the craftsmanship is superb and the seams are so tight - not a single kernel of rice can escape - that it's virtually impossible to unravel the strands without fragmenting the contents.
The photographs at right depict the production of puso. First, palm fronds are split into strands. The ends are snipped off and the strands are neatly cut into uniform strips. A weaver - usually but not always female - then takes over and the strands are woven into the distinctly shaped packets. I've been told there are eight different weaving styles but it's hard to tell the difference.
The weaving process is carried out with incredibly speed. I found the young woman's hand movements too fast to follow with the naked eye; one packet is woven up in mere seconds. I suppose that, since the weaver receives just a few centavos per woven packet, this work, like the weaving of silk carpets, pays only if the artisan is quick and expert at her craft. Bear in mind that the weaver must also insert a set amount of raw rice into each packet. I must admit I was not able to witness this since the movement, like that of a street magician performing a coin trick, is too quick to follow.
Once bundled, the puso is cooked; the artisans I witnessed used old oil drums fired by gas burners, but in many cases the fuel is still wood. The puso are cooked for exactly 30 minutes; perhaps an
added advantage of packaging the rice is that the small packets permit convection within the water, allowing the rice to cook quicker.
After a few minutes of cooling the bundles of hanging rice are rushed to the barbecue restaurants by bicycle or motorcycle.
Perhaps you are by now itching to try puso out. If you want large, expensive, and fresh puso, go to Tsibogs, where the puso is often still warm. Note that you should specify "puso", since upscale barbecue restaurants serve both puso as well as rice boiled in the traditional way. Puso are universally of good quality, though some of the cheaper eateries may serve stale puso (as well as stale barbecue). You can tell that a packet of puso is old if the rice is starting to turn a brownish hue around the edges. Note that puso is just rice; it is not salted or flavored in any way. However, the rice does pick up some fragrance and pigmentation from the palm leaves. Eventually one becomes used to this.