Thursday, February 19, 2009

Best pig ever

Well, it's official; Anthony Bourdain in his show and blog has said it: Filipino lechon is "the best pig ever.'

It's not as if we Filipinos need the affirmation--well, maybe we do. Travel shows don't usually showcase the Philippines (Bourdain and co-conspirator Andrew Zimmern excepted); Filipino chefs don't usually win Top Chef or become The Next Food Network Star, and I wonder if Samantha Brown will ever grace a Filipino beach with her bare suntanned foot. The Philippines is probably Southeast Asia's best-kept culinary secret, with travel bloggers and travel books pooh-poohing our food for being blander and less spicy than our Thai neighbors (Bourdain to his credit upon hearing this opinion in the show immediately dismissed it: "no, it isn't that," he says brusquely).

So if some gangly white man with a popular travel show and rep of straight-shooting no-nonsense street smarts flies in and declares our roast meat the best he's ever tasted, yes I can see where our reaction can be a little, uh, enthusiastic (see Bourdain's Hierarchy of Pork, and the almost four hundred (as of this writing) comments that follow, or see Marketman's (pseudonym of one of the show's purveyors) posting of the No Reservations Lechon Lunch (which includes an ingredients list of the various pigs roasted, both the classic Cebu lechon and the Marketman variation) with its hundred-plus reactions (including a dissenting one warning that Bourdain will never come back to the Philippines, ever).

I did offer my opinion that any disappointment Bourdain may have felt about his Philippine visit, or dampening of spirit felt due to Augusto's (his erstwhile host) lack of energy and initiative, is, while not exactly feigned, probably pointed up in the editing room during postproduction. I've watched enough episodes of the show to notice that Bourdain likes to have a through-story, a kind of premise on which to hang the show on, and the apparent premise he'd hit upon on this installment goes something like: "Bourdain takes naive Augusto, who apparently doesn't have a clue about his parents' culture and feels left out, and reintroduces him to said culture, through the medium of roast pork (hell, the previews practically spelled it out for us). Nicely different take for the show (Bourdain saves Filipino from himself!), nice way of turning apparent handicap into virtue (no bar scenes, which may mean the Filipinos failed to take the hint from past episodes and introduce Bourdain to the joys of lambanog, basi, or tapuy--meaning in a sense the Filipino hosts did screw up big time (or was Bourdain watching his alcohol? He quit smoking recently)), nice way to showcase Bourdain's softer, more paternal side (white man good guy). 

All snarking (who said Bourdain had a monopoly?) aside, the man does know his pork. As he's said in practically every episode, he loves pig, and he's declared this or that variation of the meat good, better, great, or forgettable. And he seems impressed enough to say Filipino lechon is the best not once but twice, and follow it up with a clear ranking in his blog. Cynical as I may be, I'm not one to look down on another cynic's repeated praise; thank you sir, for the compliment.

(Can't help but go into a lengthy aside about my own experience with lechon Cebu--a friend Iris who worked for a Cebu resort invited the family over, and generously had us installed in one of the huts facing the sea. We just had to walk right out our door, and the ocean was about fifty paces away.

Beautiful place, with a shark pool in the front lobby (I remember standing at one end, marveling at some of the larger fish, only to turn and discover that one of my young 'uns had been standing at the other end, dipping his hand in the water). The seaside restaurant--literally, a grill place where you sat at the end of a jetty, over the water, as you ate--served a hot, briny and gingery Manila clam soup, and live lobster sashimi. Basically the chef plucked a large lobster out of his fishtank, bisected the tail with his sharp chef's knife, chopped the meat into large chunks and served it, still quivering, on a plate. It was unbelievably sweet.

The next day we went boating, and on one mid-ocean stop one of our guides dived for sea urchins. He surfaced with a bagful, which he banged against the boat's hull--to remove most of the spines--used a pair of scissors to snip the uni open, plopped the pale orange flesh onto our hands, and had us pop it in our mouths. The lobster was sweet, but this was rich, like briny butter, with a distinctly creamy texture. I felt this thrill emanate from the center of my forehead all the way down to my belly, it was so good.

We finally ate at Iris' home, and she topped the whole visit with an entire lechon Cebu, ordered and delivered to her home. Crisp crackling, with just the slightest hint of fat (like the world's richest sandwich spread, on a slice of porky toast), and the flesh around the ribs had the flavor of sea salt and lemongrass. We talked about that meal--about Cebu--for years afterward; still do nowadays. Actually, we talked about the lobster, uni and pig just a few nights ago, just after the Bourdain episode.)

A few complaints I had about the show (to be fair, Bourdain himself professed nervousness about trying to do justice to the cuisine of seven thousand islands). He didn't nibble on a balut, at least not in the show. He wasn't impressed by the pancit palabok (to be fair, maybe it wasn't a good sample).

He liked the pakbet, but if I were helping with the show (ha!), I'd have asked our manang, who comes from the Ilocos region to help prepare it. That was a Tagalog pakbet in the show, hardly the real thing at all, or hardly the most flavorsome version. An Ilocano pakbet would be cooked in a palayok (an earthenware pot), would feature the small Ilocano eggplant (about the size of a large egg), the small ampalaya (bitter gourd), sitaw (string beans), patani (a pale white Lima bean), small tomatoes, okra, ginger. The vegetables are not cut up, but tossed whole in the palayok to stew with fish bagoong (fermented fish paste) and--glorious of all glories--that decadent deep-fried pork product called bagnet, which is to chicharon (fried pork skin) what Bruce Banner is to The Incredible Hulk (bagnet is basically pork belly fried till it's crispy hard; for a detailed description of the meat and how to cook it, check this out). The result is an eye-rolling, sigh-inducing stew of pork-and-fish flavored vegetables, in a thick and incredibly flavorsome broth.

Then there's the bulalo, boiled beef soup and shank bones. Bourdain to his credit knows enough to suck out the bone marrow, but as I explained in this blog post, sipping the marrow without using patis (fermented fish sauce) is like enjoying the beef, the very essence of beef (as Zimmern likes to say, "fat is flavor") without adding the poetry, the briny sweetness that helps the beefiness take flight.

Finally, and this is possibly the saddest omission of all, Bourdain failed to partake of agus-us. I first heard of this possibly mythological delicacy years ago, from Ed Alegre's column in Businessworld. The article described various Filipino bar chow, including kaldereta (probably named after its cooking vessel, a Filipinized caldero, or large cooking pot), the best version of which features goat meat, the kaldaretang ulo ng kambing (stewed goat's head) being the best of the best with its tender, flavorful tongue, its pair of fatty eyeballs, its soft, cheesy brain tucked away like an oversized gold nugget within the skull. Plenty of crushed garlic as thickener ("which is why it's so expensive," I remember Ed writing), and whole sweet pickle, not relish ("so you can take it out and pop it in your mouth," Ed writes) as--well, I'm just not sure what it was for (flavoring or souring agent?), only that it tasted good.

Haven't found that article, may never will, but I did find an earlier version where he mentions all kinds of bizarre bar chow, and it makes for a fascinating read. Like his description of dinubok: "Take a big fish, preferably one that's fat....wrap as it is in plastic and let to hang for 4 days to a week. Unwrap. Remove its innards. Wash clean. Slice. Wrap in kolis leaf. Inun-un (paksiw (a kind of stewing)) in salt, garlic, ginger, palm vinegar, vetsin. Ampalaya is optional. Or cook linarang-style."

Agus-us is mentioned near the end of the piece. It's a conversation with Loyong, the brother of Raymond Fernandez, a professor in the College of Fine Arts University of the Philippines Cebu. Raymond come from Dumanjug, a coastal town in Cebu.

"'It's tuba (palm wine) country,' he says. 'All our sumsuman (bar chow) goes well with tuba.

"'Dalupapa is cuttlefish which has to be marinated in toyo (soy sauce) for one hour; otherwise it would be very tough. We cook it slowly, five minutes on each side. Fried or broiled. If it is overcooked it is too tough to bite. And we use only the body.

"'Then there's lumayagan, which is a small squid, or cuttlefish perhaps. Two inches to a foot long. This we fry with very little palm vinegar and salt. It cooks in its own black sauce. We do not take out the entrails. That is what makes it delicious, the taste of entrails. It is especially delicious if it has bihud (squid roe).

"'The rarest is agus-us. We mix boiled kamote (sweet potato tops) and raw pork. We let it hang for a few months. When worms start to appear that's the time to eat it. Very good as sumsuman. I remember the Camayos of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, who wrap the newly caught wild boar in anahaw leaves and keep it hanging until worms come out--that's the sign that its ready for eating.'

"'Masarap (delicious)?'

"'Nothing like it,' Loyong asserts with finality."

This was to be a celebration of Filipino cuisine in all its varied glory, which made it all the more startling when, googling around, I discovered that Edilberto Alegre, columnist and writer and champion of Philippine culture and its cuisine, died a little over a month ago. I read his column many times back when I was working at a bank, and copies of Businessworld were available outside of any vice president's office, or on the secretary's desk; even met him years back--once, maybe a few times. I don't dare profess to know him to any great extent, which makes it a bit of a mystery, why belated news of his passing should hit me so hard.

I do agree with his primary argument: Filipino culture is not damaged goods. It takes its influences, from Spain, from the United States, from China, and makes them its own. It's a thesis Alegre has been supporting for as long as I remember reading him, and it's one under which I operate (a common-sense attitude, really--"I'm basically okay, and what I do with what I'm exposed to (American TV, movies, books) is Filipino adaptability working at its inventive best").

I remember our last conversation. I'd asked him about agus-us. "How on Earth could you justify eating something full of maggots like that?"

"I asked Loyong about it. His reply was 'But it's exactly then that it's safe to eat.' When they disappear, then you know it's gone past rotten to being too poisonous, even for maggots."

"So what does it taste like?"

"Like soft, ripened cheese. Like nothing on earth."

Till we meet again, Ed. 



Jeff said...

Nice read. However, I suggest that "Philippine cuisine," "Anthony Bourdain" and "No Reservations" a part of its tags.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks. Trying to keep the tags to a manageable number, though you can see that's already a lost cause.

Noel Vera said...

On second thought--why not? I've got another Bourdain post to add the tag to, and there may be more to come...

Sachin said...

Yeah Bourdain does love his pork, something he has brought up enough times in previous episodes. So he didn't try balut after all then. I missed about 10-15 minutes of the show and I was sure he would try that, as he never backs away from trying stuff on screen atleast. In an episode based in Vietnam, he ate a beating heart of a snake. He was brought the snake and it was cut up and served with the blood. I forgot his exact comment though.

Noel Vera said...

Possibly "if I got a nickel for every claim that this or that food helps one's manhood..."

Ozsteve said...

A must see for those over 50 who are tired of the seeming political correctness in this world. For those under 30 it ain't gonna' make sense. Those between 30-50 are too busy paying off their mortgage to get a chance to appreciate it. In a world cluttered with amateur web videos, mediocre live television and unspiring cinema, Gran Torino stands tall as a masterpiece of truth. The world needs more Clint Eastwoods.

Noel Vera said...


I like Gran Torino too.

Chris Uy said...

I have tasted agus-us, although by another name (I can't remember what, exactly). And while I can't say that it was gross, taste-wise, I did not much care for the smell (the comparison to cheese is apt, indeed). I was a bit drunk then, so maybe that explains my daring. By the way, is it camote or camote tops (greens)? I remember eating only camote. Please, please don't tell me I was supposed to eat the meat as well. And I had been so proud for taking the leap...

Noel Vera said...

It's kamote tops. I'm quoting from the actual article, so it's his bit of ambiguity.

Would love to try that someday.