Lye Substitute for Filipino Cake


Steamed rice cake, also known as kutsinta, is a popular dessert throughout the Philippines. The traditional food, which is brown to orange, is typically steamed then served with shredded coconut on top. It requires specific ingredients to result in the dense, moist texture and richly sweet flavor, including rice flour and lye. However, lye, while used in many Asian recipes, is also used as a cleaner in North America, and can be harmful when swallowed. There is one alternative that can achieve the thick, rich texture of Filipino cake without using lye: baking soda.

Filipino Cake History

  • Filipino cuisine has been greatly influenced by its neighbors. In particular, the steaming of sweet rice cakes, a method known as puto, was derived from other cuisines throughout Southeast Asia. Kutsinta, in particular, is used as both a dessert and a snack. They are purchased from street vendors or made in homes. Lye, traditionally created from wood ashes, was combined with the rice mixture before steaming to maintain the firm texture.

Lye Water

  • Lye water, added in small amounts to cooking, is an Asian cooking staple. Also known as sodium hydroxide, this liquid is corrosive and can make humans sick if ingested in the wrong way or quantity. Only food-grade lye, stored safely and purchased from a reputable vendor, should be used for recipes. It is typically sold in micro-beads, and dissolved in water right before use.

Baking Soda Substitution

  • Substitute the same quantity of baking soda for dry lye, dissolving it in the same amount of water called for in a recipe. For example, if 1 teaspoon lye dissolved in 1 cup water is called for, dissolve that amount of baking soda instead. This will retain the thick, glutinous texture of the cakes without the need to use the caustic food-grade acid. Do not add extra baking soda to obtain a thicker texture -- that would cause a bitter flavor.


  • Lye lightly browns the cakes when steamed, but baking soda will not. If you want the color to be richer, use food-grade dye to obtain the desired effect. Substitute all-purpose flour instead of rice flour in a one-to-one ratio if the rice-based product is unavailable. Use baking soda in the same manner, even if substituting flours.

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