Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating

The CC is a big fan of the author James Hamilton-Paterson who has probably led one of the most picturesque lives among writers. He spent the 80's living on a remote fishing island in the Philippines — not some picturesque romantic "desert island" but one with real dog-shit on the beach which the "pigs ate for breakfast."

This amazing article was published in the Guardian on May 18th, 1996. The Philippines banned "eating Fido" in 1998 but of course, you can make all the laws in the world but you can't so easily change eating patterns as the Japanese might tell you.

I first woke up to how rigidly one’s own culture defines the edible when I spent a year in Libya back in the mid-sixties. I was interested by my initial revulsion to eating a live locust. Tripoli then was something of a hick town, many of whose older inhabitants were true sons of the desert. In the locust season these people could be seen sitting outside their houses, gossiping and idly eating the insects alive. As though shelling peanuts, they would strip off the wings and legs and pop the body into their mouths.

The day inevitably came when I was hospitably offered a locust. It was partly a tribute to public school food that I was able to eat it with stoical panache, but only partly. I was curious, and that helped. The taste was faintly greenish and suety, and I remember being anxious to chew it all at once before my tongue could detect any tiny movements of protesting mandible or pulsing abdomen.

The tradition of eating in a spirit of curiosity exists even in Britain. Eminent Victorian naturalists such as Frank Buckland and Vincent Holt did it all the time. Buckland ate anything, including exotic zoological specimens, and was the one who wrote “A roast field mouse – not a house mouse – is a splendid bonne bouche for a hungry boy. It eats like a lark.” Holt’s excellent book Why Not Eat Insects? (London, 1885) was full of satisfying dishes which any Briton with access to a garden could prepare, such as Boiled Neck of Mutton with Wireworm Sauce and Moths on Toast. Some years ago a reception was held at, I think, the Royal Geographical Society, at which cocktail sandwiches spread with Holt’s woodlouse paste recipe were served. “Better than shrimp” was the widespread verdict, and one might think a taste for it would catch on if only woodlice were conveniently available by the pint, like winkles. Wake up, Sainsbury’s.

I thought about all this on my most recent spell in the Philippines, which remains my favorite country bar none partly because it offers novel experiences of every conceivable kind with high good humour. Among these are gastronomic pleasures and challenges which leave one lost in admiration at human ingenuity and discrimination. Discrimination, because the recipes often rely on a palate tuned to fine shades of flavour that elude the untrained.

The supremacist reputation of French gastronomy and oenophily have tended to bludgeon us into thinking that tastes become cruder the further one gets from Europe. Yet it is not just Basque chefs who can identify from a beef stew the exact pasture where the animal grazed. Tea experts from Darjeeling to Japan will often identify a source of water from taste alone. Similarly, I discovered, a feaster in the mountain provinces of the northern Philippines can tell to the nearest day how long a piece of salted pork was packed in its earthenware crock simply by its flavour.

I had long since tried all the old party favorites in the village where I live: bayawak (a large, iguana-like lizard); dog in one guise or another; fruit bat; and, of course, that ubiquitous national favourite, balutBalut are hawked in the streets of almost any town: hard-boiled duck eggs which have been fertilized and in which the embryonic chick’s tiny beak and little folded wings are well defined but still soft. Eaten warm with salt they are superb as well as nutritious.

This time, though, my travels took me some hundred of miles to the north, to the late Ferdinand Marcos’s home territory of Ilocos Norte. I remembered Libya as soon as I encountered pinaluksong hipon or “jumping salad”. The hipon are tiny live shrimp which leap and squirm on the plate. I was told they could be subdued with a squeeze of lime juice, but this seemed only to provoke mine. Maybe the juice stung their eyes.

The taste is wonderful, quite unknown to people who have never eaten seafood which has not been locked in ice since it died. They do twitch a little in the mouth: the effect is not unlike the crackling sherbet (Space Dust and Moon Rocks) British children could buy a few years ago.
When you eat jumping salad it is easy to believe in sympathetic magic, which claims that the soul or essence of the victim passes into the devourer – the theory which once gave us larks’ tongue pate. It made me feel sprightly for hours afterwards. Don’t be tempted to dust the shrimp, however lightly, with black pepper: it overpowers them. A judicious drop or two of fresh ginger juice adds bite. 
Like any other civilized people, Filipinos make a firm distinction between pet and pot. Times would have to be hard indeed before old Rover made the supreme sacrifice. Dog dishes are often referred to generically as asosena. This is a felicitous pun on the Spanish word lily (azucena), that deathly plant introduced for their cemeteries by the Philippines’ first colonisers. But in Tagalog aso is dog, while cena is Spanish for supper; so with a small triumphal act of semantics, an indigenous eastern dish flowers to outrage the European invader.

Up in northern Luzon one can eat a satisfactory array of dog recipes, though in the town of Baguio the meat is often sold from door to door already butchered, and gastronomes will tell you it’s important to know the breed you’re cooking, as well as its age, and vary your recipe accordingly. This is where a discriminating palate pays off, since true dog lovers will know whether the dish’s lead character was a dog or a bitch, especially one on heat. Of course puppies, like veal, need bland and delicate cooking.

Filipinos, like the people of many other nations, generally kill their animals by cutting their throats and keeping the blood as a separate ingredient. One reason for this may be that bloodless meat tastes less malansa – an impossible word to translate since English doesn’t recognise what it defines. Dictionaries usually give something like “the smell of fresh fish”; but that’s not precisely it, and both fish and meat may be described as tasting malansa. It’s interesting to discover a sensory perception that is simply not recognised by one’s own culture. Bearing this in mind (for Filipinos consider malansa unpleasant), there are half a dozen common ways of cooking dog – other than straight roasting over an open fire – and plenty of regional variations. It should be remembered that most rural Filipino cookery is of the “open fire” rather than the “oven” type, which gives a distinctive flavour.

Kalderetang aso (caldera, of course, is Spanish for cauldron): A classic dog dish. Garlic and onions are fried in coconut oil until brown, and reserved. The meat (chopped Chinese style, with the bones) is fried in the same oil until tender, then the onions and garlic are put back in and a cupful of soy sauce added. When that has bubbled and seethed enough, any or all of the following can be added: tomato ketchup, peanut butter, margarine, peppercorns, chili, pickles, potatoes, carrots. The ketchup and margarine give a debased and over-sweet taste and may safely be omitted. The peanut butter imparts a slightly Indonesian flavour. To this is added a bottle of San Miguel beer – one bottle per dog – and the whole thing allowed to stew gently for an hour. A fancy asosena might even include pineapple chunks. Adobong aso (adobo being Spanish for pickling sauce): This gets rid of any malansa flavour by a different method.

Here the meat is boiled first in coconut vinegar and soy sauce. It can be embellished into adobong aso sa gata by adding turmeric and fresh ginger and then coconut milk at the end. Depending on the quality of the dog, the flavour emerges rich and clear and muttony. 
Bulacan dog: In Bulacan Province they have a method of boiling the meat with tamarind, onions and garlic to achieve a good, sour, sinigang flavour. Then the meat is patted dry and fried in plenty of oil. It is served with a dip made of soy sauce, chili and ketchup. This is delicious, though I can’t recommend it for cat, which is a dry meat and easily becomes stringy and floury if fried as well as boiled.

I am now in a position to promote dog done alla Toscana, which I tried out in Italy last autumn after a huntsman foolishly shot his own hound. I roasted a haunch in the oven with olive oil, garlic and rosemary. My house guest considered it a great success. Sadly, owing to the lack of rosemary and olive oil in the Philippines provinces it would be hard to introduce this taste sensation there. I feel something very good might also be done with a stuffing of basil, prunes and lemon, held together with mustard flour. Certain Italian friends affect horror – as do some of my Filipino friends – but this is a received response and not based on experience. (Hypocritical, too, since dog meat is still occasionally smoked in the Italian Alps). It’s the old argument of the ayatollahs who hadn’t read a line of Rushdie. “Oh, taste and see,” is the reasonable response.

In any case, cane alla Toscana suggests a whole range of possibilities using exotic ingredients but in a European style. I am familiar with adobong sawa, which is python, and am eager to invent python steaks in Trieste fashion, with white wine and anchovy fillets. They would be fabulous. But alas, it is an idle dream. The most one could hope for here in Europe would be an occasional adder stew with shallots.

The Philippine provinces also have some unusual culinary specialities which, for sheer inventiveness, are a tribute to the human spirit. There is a dish from the mountain provinces that requires a chicken to be plucked before it is beaten slowly to death with spoons. The theory runs that the beating mobilizes subcutaneous fat as well as breaking the capillaries, and produces a flushed, creamy texture.

I have to report – regretfully, in view of the bird’s protracted demise – that in my case it was all for nothing since it tasted to me like roast chicken by any other name. Evidently my palate is still poorly educated. I gather the Ewondo of Cameroon use a similar method on plump dogs, which are tied up and tenderized for a day with small canes before they are cooked in a complicated nine-hour procedure. In any case, readers wishing to try for themselves this method of preparing a chicken are urged to use nothing heavier than one of those light wooden spoons from Habitat. The point is not to break any bones.

Also, the sensitive are advised that even in the cheerful outdoor context of tribal cookery the scene is not without its pitiful aspects. I suppose the bird might be given an anaesthetic; yet this would violate the no-chemicals rule.

Also from the north is pinik-pilkan, which I have yet to try. It, too, starts with a chicken being beaten to death, this time with its clothes on. Once dead it is briefly roasted in its feathers before being cut up and cooked in the normal fashion. A tasty combination is for it to be mixed with itag, which is belly of pork dried and packed in salt in earthenware crocks until it becomes maggoty. This, when cooked with the chastised hen, yields a greeny-greyish sauce described as “hearty”. The sum of its parts is apparently far greater than their individual promise.

Buro dishes, a Pangasinan speciality, are also something I have never eaten. Buro refers to a way of pickling in brine. One celebrated version starts with a stew of pickled vegetables which is allowed to cool before being fed to a dog that has been starved for a couple of days. The dog wolfs it down and after an interval, someone gives the animal a special blow behind the ribs with the edge of the hand which induces immediate vomiting. The regurgitated stew is caught in a bowl, re-cooked with additional herbs and eaten. The dog, which is more cross than injured, is rewarded with a meal which this time it is allowed to digest completely.

A friend who has tried this dish, as well as another version involves fermenting fish and rice in a crock for several weeks, says buro is something you need to acquire a taste for, like kimchi, the Koreans’ pickled vegetables. Yet another Pangasinan dish involves a goat being fed as much grass as it will eat before it is killed and cooked with the grass still inside. The grass-filled stomach is allegedly delicious.

There is a range of papaitan dishes from Ilocos (pait means bitter) which have percolated south to the extent that one can find workers’ restaurants in Manila specialising in them.

A good papaitan will present an interesting taste to a European who is otherwise accustomed to bitterness only in tonic water, or in vegetables like chicory. It is well worth trying and nothing like as bitter as it sounds – far less so than some varieties of Italian salad greens, for instance.

I returned from my trip up north to my home village to find somebody’s birthday being celebrated with an old favourite – a brilliant campfire version of duck à l’orange called patotin. The duck is lightly spit-roasted and then transferred to a large iron saucepan, in the bottom of which is a bed of the Chinese fermented black beans which come in tins. A bottle of Sprite is added (though Fanta is equally satisfactory) as well as a large lump of ice. The ice slows down the cooking – heat control is always a problem with an open fire. After an hour or so the patotin is ready.

Free range duck is delicious in any case; but what makes this dish is the fizzy-drink-sweetened black bean sauce.

It used to be obligatory to end a food article by quoting the 18th-century French lawyer and gastronome, Brillat-Savarin,“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, et je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are). I haven’t the least idea what he meant. What kind of judgment was he threatening to make? A class one? Racial? Nationalistic? Economic? Religious? Or merely implying a confident assertion of his own bon goût?

However, if he meant,“You are a curious traveler, soon to be dead and happy to try anything once,” one might allow the old fraud some points. The only form of abuse I remember without pleasure from my schooldays is gastronomic. It is a reminder that we come from a culture which thought nothing of giving Spam fritters to impressionable children. We owe it to ourselves to put our cast-iron digestions to better use, and abandon taboo in favour of new taste experiences.

Any visitor to Manila wishing to do the same might make a good start by dining at Patio Mequeni, a restaurant near Remedios Circle in Malate. Nothing too outrageous, but an interesting range of regional Filipino dishes.

The deep-fried mole crickets to nibble with a cold San Miguel as one waits for the main course are highly recommended, and would have made Vincent Holt’s evening. They rustle agreeably on the plate but are still squidgy and peanutty inside.

Dog-fanciers, on the other hand, will have to ask around, since the restaurants they are looking for tend to lie outside the touristy areas. If you find a taxi-driver who pretends not to understand, you can convince him by telling him you’re looking for aw-aw (rhymes with bow-wow). You can’t get clearer than that. 

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