Thursday, March 27, 2008
Bone marrow soup and steamed rice
Anthony Bourdain's death-row meal--in effect, what he would like to eat if he was going to be fried by two thousand volts the very next day--is roasted bone marrow with parsley salad.
I've tried cooking that meal myself, and it's very good, very rich. But I've just realized that I've eaten--have been eating, for years--something even better.
In other words, bulalo, or boiled beef shank with bone marrow. The recipe linked here is one I'm familiar with, only with a helluva lot more peppercorns. Not just the shank, which when boiled properly is full of tender meat and softened tendons and cartilage, but tail and neck bones as well.
The result--well, admittedly roasting the bones gives them a unique flavor, but boiling them to make a rich broth spooned over steamed rice (as opposed to spreading the marrow on toasted bread) is another thing entirely. Far more homey, I think, and comforting (and wonderful in the winter cold). True there's the former's contrast of textures--marrow on crisp toast--but that unctuous fat spread over pillowy rice (appreciated especially if your teeth aren't as firm as they used to be) flavored with simmering soup is, I submit, an equally complex (and arguably subtler--you get different shades of softness) symphony for tongue and teeth.
And while roasted bone marrow has been accursed with the patina of fine dining, bulalo is still pretty much a home-cooked meal, at most a lunch-counter meal. I remember going out on client calls to the province of Batangas, with officers from the Development Bank of the Philippines in tow. I particularly remember Vivian and Liza (poor Liza, who has since passed away, was always game to try something) asking to stop for lunch, the corporate van parked before an eatery with wraparound wire-netting windows and a creaking screen door (spring loaded, of course, to keep the door closed and horseflies out). We stepped out of the van into the broiling heat (being noon and the south of Luzon, it was easily ninety Fahrenheit in the shade), walked into a crowded lunchroom with concrete floor, picnic-table benches, wooshing ceiling fans overhead, picked up our orders at the long canteen-style counter (servers with great ladles splashing hot soups into bowls; tongs deftly picking out one's choice of vegetables, meats, bones; cups scooping out rice from huge pots to be emptied, upside-down, into plates).
I'd learned much later that Vivian and Liza had been horrified--such a common, low-class place for us to eat! But I loved it; I loved the cheap prices, the workingman atmosphere, the no-nonsense efficiency. And I like to think that, despite the ambience (or utter lack of), the two really enjoyed the food (I remember Vivian--or was it Liza?--wrinkling her nose and saying "it wasn't very hygienic--you can see the cooks' sweat dripping into the broth." To which I replied: "but that's part of the flavor!"). At the very least, they must have appreciated my company.
Memories like that and, further back, of myself as a child eating bulalo, can't help but rise up steaming (like the cliché of ghostly apparitions, only with a distinctly beefy aroma) from the bowl in front of me. I like to eat the pechay (Chinese cabbage) first, as a way to assuage my guilt at such a sinful indulgence (although pechay with rice and hot soup--the bitter leaves crunchy, the soft starch soaking up the meaty juices--is in itself a wondrous thing). I use a knife to worry out the marrow (sometimes I use a chopstick, though my favorite method bone structure allowing is to press one end to my lips and just blow the stuff--like snot--out the other end), which would lie like deep-gold butter (with flecks of brown meat) on top of the rice, trembling; my hands would tremble too, almost as if in sympathetic reaction.
And then--the secret, the glory of bulalo: the patis, or fish sauce. English roasted marrows are traditionally seasoned with salt--sea salt, if you like--but that is a poor substitute for this divine, dark-brown elixir dripped from unsteady spoon over rice, fat, everything. It's as if, having decided to excavate the heart, the very essence of beef flavor, you recklessly throw in the briny sweetness (oh so slightly corrupted by aging) of the sea. Surf and turf, fermented and fresh, raised to the level of countryside poetry.
Bourdain can keep his death-row meal and my earlier self can go stuff himself with parsley salad for all I care; a death row dish--a dish so beloved you would choose it for your last night on Earth--needn't be anything read from a book or seen on a TV show or downloaded from the internet; sometimes it can be as simple as what your grandmother cooked when you were a child, or ordered at a lunch counter, or ate at home, remembering, in the dead of winter.