Food – Out of the Frying Pan …..

I am not a huge fan of a lot of different types of food as my pallet is more of simple one. I can be easily classified as a meat and potatoes man though I do love a good Italian, Mexican, or Chinese meal, and of course enjoy many of the American staples. For the most part my rule has always been, “One must be able to recognize what is on one’s plate before eating it.” Good advice… I would write that one down if I were you. This unfortunately rules out most Filipino dishes.Another rule that I live by is, “it should not look like it did when it was alive as it is does served on your plate.” Again, I’ll pause as you take time to jot that down…

One of the results of these rules is that I am not a big seafood fan. Something about having eyeballs and various internal organs to sift through to get to the meat really taxes my appetite. Your meal should not be looking at you when you eat it!

Of course the first thing people who love to eat critters from the water say to me are, “Well, you’ve never tasted shrimp gumbo in New Orleans!” or “Obviously you’ve never had our fresh Boston Crab!” or “You could never have tasted fresh off the boat Alaskan Sea Urchins!” or whatever and wherever they feel is the best seafood available.

Trust me on this one, I have. I have been there and tasted that. I come from a family who craves seafood and I have traveled quite a bit in my early years and even more once I joined the Army.

I have caught my own Mahi Mahi after an hour fighting the beast off the back of a fishing boat in Hawaii and then grilled it up on a hibachi on a Maui beach. I have walked through Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and bought fish fresh off the boat then slow cooked it any number of ways over a mesquite barbecue. I have been to four star restaurants in Massachusetts and ordered off of their “Today’s Fresh Catch” menu. I have speared my own Barracuda in the warm waters off of Cancun Mexico then have it prepared by the finest chefs at Club Med. I have sat in the best sushi houses in Tokyo Japan and watched a master prepare a culinary delight the “right” way. But all of these leave that seafood aftertaste in my mouth and frankly I’m
happier with a Whopper and fries from Burger King.

I am not afraid to try new things, it’s just that I know what I like and unfortunately this means that most Filipino dishes are WAY off limits to my finicky taste buds. Oh, don’t think this hasn’t been a source of strife in my life too as the average Filipino loves to eat. And I mean LOVES to eat.
There is no such thing a three square meals in the Philippines. There are numerous small meals strung out along the day like checkpoints in a marathon. It is just impossible to go anywhere with your honey ko and not plan at least one meal or stop at any number of street vendors without buying something for her to snack on. The problem being that most of these things look like something removed from a mouse trap, slapped on a stick, and then grilled to a blackened color that any Cajun would be proud of.

Food is just EVERYWHERE. From street vendors to fast food joints to full fledge restaurants to people walking along the highway in between cars trying to get you to buy some freeze dried cow lips or some other popular snack food, there is no escaping it. Food is so ingrained into the Filipino culture that to think of one without the other is unfathomable.

Try this out sometime: The next time you are in a club and you see all the staff and dancers just standing around in a trance like comatose state, wait for the snack food vendor guy to walk in. Buy about 100 to 200 pesos worth of snack items from him, lay them out on the bar and along the stage, and then offer them to the staff. You’ll be amazed at what happens. What once was a sea of people standing around with no conversation or life in them at all quickly becomes awash with activity and voices. Even the people who aren’t hungry will pick up some pumpkin seeds and start cracking and chatting away. Little groups will form up everywhere with conversations started and gossip soon fills the air. It’s as if the food is a catalyst for speaking and human interaction.

Another variable you must always factor in to your Filipino food model is the ever present common denominator of rice. This seems to be the litmus test whether or not the food you are eating can be classified as an actual meal. If the food your eating contains or has a side dish of rice, it counts as a full meal. It doesn’t matter the size of meal either. It can be one chicken finger and a side of rice or a whole side of cow and rice. They are both an official meal.

I have taken previous girlfriends to lavish Italian or Mexican meals and we have both eaten to the point of being stuffed and needing a fork lift to leave, yet when we return home the first thing she does is eat some rice. She will not be satisfied unless some rice makes its way past her lips. Even the McDonald’s in the Philippines offers rice with most of their combo meals or can be ordered a la carte. When I’m home in the states I can go weeks or months without eating rice yet when in the Philippines I find this entrĂ©e with every meal.

Also something to watch out for when dining in the Philippines is the dramatic change of things you thought were safe. The Filipinos have a serious sweet tooth and this effects many of the things you would normally take for granted. The spaghetti is sweet, the ketchup is sweet, the coffee is served sweet, everything is sweet, sweet, sweet.

If you want a good laugh take your buddy to a restaurant and order spaghetti, Filipino style. Casually watch as he sprinkles the parmesan cheese on and try not to give away the punch line to early by staring at him as he twirls his first few strands of noodles around his fork and then pops it into his mouth. When he tastes the sweet sauce and recoils back in shock be sure not to be drinking anything as you may choke from laughter.

This also explains why the average Filipino is gaga for chocolate. A home run with any friend or potential in-law every time is a box of chocolates or candy. They crave the sweet stuff. The sweeter the better. This sweetness factor could explain the Halo Halo….

Ok, I take it back. This one may be hard to explain…

For Halo Halo take some crushed ice, add all sorts of different pieces of fruit and beans (Yes, you read right, beans) then pour some sticky sweet sauce on it, mix it up a little, throw it in a glass, shove a straw and spoon in it, and you have Halo Halo. A Filipino dessert specialty. Well, I guess I was right in the first place. There was no explaining it… I’ll stick to an ice creme sunday any day.

And while on the topic of strange foods…

How about Salagubang? These are beetles. That’s right, beetles! You literally suck on the headless bugs to get all its contents out, or with your thumb and finger, you can squeeze out a handful, insect by insect, on to your plate of rice, drench it with some cooking juice and eat away. This is worse than some of the food I’ve heard about eaten by prisoners in some dank dark wet POW camp!

Not bizarre enough for you?

How about Bagoong? This is a mixture of ginamos (anchovies), alamang (tiny shrimps), and other various ingredients that have been salted, cured and fermented for several weeks. The resulting salty liquid (called patis) is drawn off and used separately as a sauce or condiment. In addition to being served as a condiment, bagoong is used as a flavoring in many dishes. The equivalent of Filipino caviar. I can’t tell you the shock I got when my girlfriend brought in some mango with a side of bagoong. “Yummy”, I thought, “Mango! I love mango! This must be some sweet strawberry sauce or something.” …WRONG!

If I had looked carefully I’m sure there were many of my friends sitting across the table from me who just previously were casually watching me as I dipped a large slice of mango into this salty paste from hell and tried not to give away the punch line staring at me as I bit into this salty concoction recoiling in shock as the taste of shrimp and nuclear waste invaded my mouth. I hope they were at least drinking something as I did this so they would at least choke from laughing at me…

Had enough? Keep going, you say?

I have heard from friends of an even rarer delicacy that is reportedly quite popular up north in the Ilicos region. A lovely dish called “Ilicano Kalderetang Aso” or what we call in the west: DOG!

What makes this dish so special is that they feed the dog with lots and lots of a rice mixture consisting of onions, garlic and salt and pepper. Then when the dog is so bloatedly full, they slaughter it and take out the intestines which are now loaded with the rice. This they then steam or deep fry until I guess the smell knocks out any small rodents who happen to be
nearby and eat it!

MMMmm! Really makes the mouth water, doesn’t it?

Starting to get the picture?

No, not yet?

Then let’s talk about Balut.

I can’t begin to tell you the look of horror and dismay on my face the first time I saw this nifty little item being eaten. Hmmmm, Balut… How do I describe this without losing half of my reading audience? Basically it is a fertilized duck egg. Though those three simple words don’t give this “food” item any justice. And I do use the term “food” lightly.

Reportedly they are an aphrodisiac, but I’m sure this is just a weak marketing ploy by the “Balut Administration Resellers Federation” or BARF for short.

You can buy these little capsules of toxic waste almost anywhere from street vendors who I am told are in league with the Devil. They are served warm and usually with a small packet of salt all wrapped up in a newspaper or brown paper sheet and then shoved into a plastic bag like everything is kosher. They seem to be sold mainly at night as I’m sure most vendors are hoping you wont get a good look at your purchase for fear of seeing just how gross it really is.

Balut is sold in various states of development. The most common and sought after stage is when once cracked open you can see the tiny duck already formed with little feathers, a beak, and all internal organs in place. Many just crack open a small hole at one end of the egg and slurp out the venomous fluid that surrounds the fetus while others enjoy masticating on the end pieces of calcified albumin. The sickly crunch sound of baby Daffy being devoured is just too much for me.

My wife likes to eat balut and then try and kiss me. I love my wife but no judge in America will ever convict me if she tries this in the states.

– Jung

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