I recently joined an old friend for a birthday celebration at one of New York’s most exciting Filipino restaurants. My friend is from Manila and, together with the other Filipinos in our group, provided a guided tour of the greatest culinary hits of their Southeast Asian nation. We basically ordered everything on the menu and a few things that weren’t.
Sizzling sisig: a slurry of pig ears, snout, cheek and belly that came gently muddled with egg and chili and, I was advised, constitutes “our classic bar food.” Deep fried chicken skin dipped in banana ketchup and sugar cane vinegar marmalade. Ube waffles, made from the celebrated purple yam and coupled with an anchovy bangoong butter and deeply caramelized macapuno syrup. I mean to tell you. Warm, fertilized duck eggs wazzled up, requiring a gentle crack off the top, a deep sip of amniotic fluid (let’s tell the truth) then the shadowy slurp-down of an at-once ghost-like yet vague bird, followed by the large, hardened yolk-turned-secret source that would have fueled and sustained a babe to maturity. I felt like a cobra gone stealth and the nest, laid bare, just inches away, offered up two eggs, both nicely seasoned with chili salt and the house vinegar. When you reach the bottom of the shell you hit a hardened and much beleaguered albumen that did not survive the pot-boil nearly as handily. “Just avoid that part,” the birthday boy advised. “Seriously—no one eats that. Don’t eat it.” I gave a courtesy nibble. It was like trying to have your way with dried caulk. But everything else— bellissima.
Around me, friends munched through sticks of fried Spam and I held up the last of the fertilized goodies and casually asked, you know, just if anyone wanted one. No one did. Someone said something about fertilized eggs once being featured on Fear Factor and then happily went back to chomping through her Spam doodle. The egg—we know clearly what it is. The Spam—we have no idea what it is. And I am the one being written up for Fear Factor? It is a wonder.
“Why such a love for Spam in the Philippines?” I asked. “Well,” another Filipino at the table started to explain. “There were a lot of GIs. And the army bases. They just basically brought this stuff over and…” She drifted off. Maybe my question was stupid. The Philippines, a former US colony, was host to American bases for nearly a century.
A surge of domestic opposition forced them to close in 1992 but earlier this month Washington and Manila opened talks to have US forces again “rotate through the Philippines” as tensions over a sprinkling of islands in the South China Sea ratchet up. So there’s more Spam on the way, everyone.
Oh, and heaping plates of adobo—“our national dish”—succulent chunks of pork braised in sugarcane vinegar, soy sauce, bay leaf, and black peppercorn with white mountain yam puree and the wonders of a roasted green. We actually forgot to sing happy birthday to our friend because we were so busy planting our faces in all this stuff so we, pinched with embarrassment yet flush with good flavors, did a kind of impromptu sally as waiters dropped off Spanish flan (Spain and the Philippines—a long relationship there too best told in bites of deliciousness) and a coconut-corn custard, even after we had long insisted no no no we’re full, no dessert please. Oh the foibles of dear friends! How quickly we forget we’re at a grand birthday feast and not a serious culinary survey. No matter. This was both and the Filipino contingent led the way with a powerful round of “masaya kaarawan.” Tagay!
Along the way, while sipping a Nora Aunor (a seriously sweet, chocolate infused cocktail named after one of the giants of the Filipino movie industry) I got to know the birthday boy’s cousin, also from Manila. She deftly guided me through my paces on the menu but confessed that she couldn’t get mind, body or stomach around her national treat of balut, the fertilized egg. We started talking more about food and the many adventures to be had when working knife, fork, spoon and chopstick well outside the purview of the FDA and around the world. I got into this story about reporting in China, about meeting up with some government officials in a rural part of Jiangxi province, good people eager to share the local specialty with me. They took me straight away and with a measure of pride to “the best” dog porridge restaurant in town. It was up on a hill and more of a shelter than a full-blown building.
I was reporting this story at the time and it was taking me more and deeper into rural China and it’s revolutionary past. Now these areas were seeking to capitalize on tourist yuan and yet things were touch and go and dog was a battleground state at the time—one part pet to be cherished, two parts food for the table. The dusty hut was overrun with pregnant mutts sniffing for scraps and the heat of the morning did nothing to dissuade me from the wisdom of sucking down a little snake wine just as soon as it was offered. “Kills what is inside,” said Xiao Wu, assistant to local party secretary Xiao Yi. “I mean, any bad thing.”
So it was a case of dog gristle in the bowl, plus live dogs walking around, plus some of them being clearly pregnant, plus a bottle of snake wine, plus the snake itself coiled up inside. How to tell any of this story without sounding like an ungrateful jerk? These were the goods, it was 8 in the morning and I was being feted. “Please, no,” Xiao Wu insisted. “It is our treat. We will pay.” We engaged in a light scuffle for the bill but it came to nothing. Wu showed a strong arm. So I offered to buy at least a jug of snake wine “for the road.” What was I thinking? But then, how could I not think this way? My stomach was in revolt but the kindness was palpable. I did not spend too much time watching one of the mutts smell and linger over a bloody chopping block or its fur-crusted cleaver.
The proprietors produced a bottle of the wine and I paid but then there was this whole thing about how the jug itself was something special and they couldn’t get too many of them around here anyway so would I mind if they just dumped the wine—snake and all—into a handy plastic bag? “Of course!” I said. I was in a big yes mood that day, a mood that has not returned to me for some time. “Pour away.” So they did, securing the top with a series of strong knots and a few rubber bands, the dead snake inside looming and swirling like a dream of dead snake; I could only see it if I really looked. “Easier for travel,” Wu agreed.
Plastic and alcohol need to forge tight bonds if they are to make sense of each other in this world. Such was not the case. On the train back to Beijing, dead asleep and dreaming of Ritter Sport chocolate bars that, as an aside, have an uncommon hold on the international chocolate market, the bag of snake wine exploded. The strong smelling alcohol went running like a wild child down the train corridor and the snake, exhausted and belly-up, lay free in the world in a patch of sun by my bed. People came running. There was some commotion and a bit of back and forth. I did my best “I’m just a tourist, I have no idea what is going on right now” routine, which I have down to an untarnished science. There was call for a mop and the determination that no mop was on board. One brave man made haste to claim the snake with the remnants of my busted bag and he disappeared down a corridor. I think we are all the better for his good work that day. I arrived in Beijing free and clear and no charges were pressed. When China gets its own FDA up to some kind of snuff, these kinds of stories will be a thing of the past. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but then, is it entirely good?
The point is there are great and delicious adventures to be had in the world, most of them of an unexpected nature, and the worst is the person who turns up her nose. Who says “I don’t even want to look at that.” Who growls the universally understood sound: “Ewwww.” I don’t like those people. But in a similar vein, on the opposite end, I don’t like those who sit around years later with a tasty Nora Aunor to hand, telling war stories of dusty dog bowls and snake. I turned to my friend’s cousin last night and said, “It’s really hard to tell this story without sounding like a jerk. I don’t want to be one of those ‘get a load of this’ gals. Everyone in Jiangxi was very nice to me.”
She said, “Yeah, I know what you mean. The important thing is just to enjoy it.” We scooped more trotter into our bowls and the waitress came around with more rice and the birthday boy asked her to stay a moment to take our whole group’s photo. It came out great.