Food Chain

It may be true that you are what you eat, but I scarcely know what I’ve eaten (nor what has eaten me). What am I?

Filipino cuisine is a blend of the exotic and familiar. Just as the Filipino people are part Malay, Chinese and Spanish, so is the cooking of the Philippines.

Exotic, from the Greek exotikos – from outside.

Everything I am is from outside – I’m cutting myself open to expose my exotic genealogy.

Lengua Estofada (Braised Beef Tongue)

1 whole beef tongue (about 2 pounds)
1½ tablespoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 medium onion, quartered
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces canned tomatoes
½ teaspoon peppercorns, crushed
2 bay leaves
½ cup sukang paombong (palm vinegar)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 cup water
3 teaspoons sugar

Ox tongue sliced into tender tonguelets, what are you trying to tell me? Taking a bite of you is less like kissing a cow (an image my brother likes to evoke to make us laugh and to freak out the white guests) than like kissing the pursed lips of vanished days, prying them open with my tongue to taste the morsels trapped between time’s teeth. I’m not much of a rememberer, but lengua remembers for me. I just have to take a bite of the tender nippled flesh to be sucked in by a dozen swirling memories. Whenever I go home I ask my mother to cook lengua for me. I like to watch her peel off the tough mottled skin after she’s boiled the enormous tongue in vinegar for hours. This is arduous work –it’s the years that she’s peeling.

Dinuguan (Pork Blood Stew)

1 pound pork, diced
2 tablespoons oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
1/4 pound pork liver, diced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup vinegar
12 ounces pork blood (The blood makes this dish look black.)
2 teaspoons sugar
3 jalapeño peppers

Mixing the blood of pigs, cows, chickens, fish, squid, shrimp, clams, turkeys, lambs, ducks, crabs, goats, rabbits, geese, quails, pheasants, squabs, frogs, turtles, sharks, alligators, and other animals that I don’t remember eating or don’t know I’ve eaten, my veins also mingle the blood of
a thrice-married Doña descended from Andalucian shepherds
her sons – a piano teacher and a train inspector in Manila
silk and porcelain traders from Fukien
Tagalog revolutionaries and traitors
Catholic heretics and fanatics . . .
What crime has not been committed by those whose blood circulates in my heart and brain? What virtue have they not carried to a terrible extreme? A red flood of memory, I am a river of immemorial blood rushing to a black sea.


2 pounds chicken
12 large shrimp
2 crabs
12 large clams
1 pound pork butt
1/4 pound ham
1 chorizo de Bilbao
1/4 pound salt pork
½ teaspoon oregano
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 teaspoons salt
6 peppercorns
4 tablespoons oil
6 cups water
2 large onions, sliced
2 cups white rice, washed and drained
8 ounces tomato sauce
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon saffron
1 large green pepper, cut into strips
1 large red bell pepper
½ cup peas
Mamá Grande

Doña Romana Arguelles Villaseñor
shepherds in Cadiz
claimed to be related to Reina Ysabel la Católica
on a secret government mission?
“muy alta y de personalidad”
a pair of bracelets, multi-colored strings of beads
two or three husbands?
died 1895 (age 79)
my great-great-great grandmother

Maybe she was thrown out by her family for being a slut or a mystic, for eloping with a gambler or a goatherd, for seducing or being seduced by a priest, for being a lesbian. Maybe she was sent to a distant colony with a pension because she knew too much. Maybe she fled to the Philippines to escape a sadistic father with big hands, the unbearable virginity of a nun, an absinthe-maddened husband, a claustrophobic love, a bloody secret, a crime (sedition? murder? possession of a clitoris?). Maybe she was an impulsive adventurer who liked the way “Las Islas Filipinas” rolled off her tongue. Maybe she was hysterical, consumptive, syphilitic, and a doctor (perhaps a disgruntled paramour, perhaps bribed by her weary, secretive, or callous family) dispatched her to a tropical climate. Maybe she was spiteful, flouting her family’s pretensions by consorting with mercenaries and criminals in a colonial backwater. Maybe she was a feminist who knew she’d have more power as a Spaniard in the Philippines than as a woman in Spain. Maybe altruistic or romantic notions impelled her to convert, enlighten, or even emulate savages. Maybe she was a spy sent by the crown to infiltrate revolutionary conspiracies. Maybe she was a colonist’s widow, forced to live in Manila because of her measly pension, which couldn’t even feed a rat’s ass in Madrid. Maybe she pursued a dream or was chased by a vengeful ghost halfway round the world. Maybe she was a retired whore, an almost-saint, a stupid racist, an audacious but stifled artist. How did she make her paella? Did she ever try dinuguan? Was she a good lover? Who gave her those colored bracelets? What memories comforted or assailed her on her deathbed? We don’t even know if she was married to two or three men, though the family genealogist opted for two, because “multiple marriages have a dirty or malicious connotation, and I would not like that to be imputed to our revered Mamá Grande who did not deserve to be so maligned.” Who was she – my tall great-great-great grandmother, Doña Romana Arguelles Villaseñor? Who shall I become one hundred years after I die? What shattered relics will inspire the wild conjectures of future imaginists?

The most significant influence of the Americans came after World War II, with the widespread distribution of canned foods.

I love Spam. Seeing the dark blue rectangular can still makes me drool. I love the sound of the key snapping off the bottom. I love threading the little metal tongue through the eye and watching the silver spiral swell around the key as I twist it round the can. I love how snugly the pink marbled flesh fits in its container so that you have to pry it out with a knife. I love the sucking sound the dappled meat makes when it slides out, glistening with a gelatinous coating and landing onto the plate with a PLOP! I love Spam right out of the can, but it’s heavenly when sliced super thin and fried to a red salty crisp. Too Americanized now, I almost never eat Spam anymore. I only indulge myself when I’m vacationing in Hawaii, where, served as sushi, Spam and rice embrace each other promiscuously, married by a green ring of seaweed.

The most popular meat for most Filipinos is pork.

Lechon Sauce

2 pounds pork liver
2 tablespoons salt
1½ cups water
12 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small onion, chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup distilled white vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
½ cup fine bread crumbs

Everyone fights over the scrumptious crunchy skin of lechon. Grownups elbow children and children sneak mouthfuls when their parents aren’t looking. Everybody looks jubilant when the gleaming pig makes its appearance. The lechon’s aromatic effusions put everybody in the mood for jokes. But underneath the jocularity, they’re ruthlessly competitive, sizing each other up, gearing for the ferocious moment when everyone pounces on the golden pig, savagely tearing off strips of skin with fatslick fingers. In seconds, the pig is naked, white like a ghost. Skinless, it has lost its magical sheen. Maybe I’m imagining it, but does everybody seem a little sad? Even so, this melancholy suspension only lasts an instant – they dive into the pig again. But the fever has passed.

Filipino food to gross white people out

Dinuguan (Pork blood stew)
Lengua estofada (Braised beef tongue)
Kare-kare (Oxtail stew in peanut sauce)
Adobong pusit (Squid cooked in its own ink)
Sinigang na itlog ng isda (Fish eggs in sour broth)
Callos (Stewed tripe with garbanzo beans)
Chicharon bulaklak (Deep-fried pork intestine)
Tokwa’t baboy (Pickled pig’s ear with tofu)
Bagoong (Fermented shrimp paste)
Balut (Hard-boiled duck egg with embryo)
Sugpo sa aligue (Prawns in crab-fat sauce)
Utak (Beef bone marrow)
Bopis (Minced pork lungs)
Azucena (Dog stew)

The Tagalogs and Pampangueños eat frogs as a delicacy, but the rest of the people of the Philippines rarely touch them.

Our cook used to make me laugh by dancing with the frogs before she fried them. She took a foreleg in each hand and made the skinned princes prance before she dropped them in the sizzling oil.

In the West, dinner is sequential . . . Planning a Filipino menu is based on contrasts of taste and texture rather than different courses . . . sweet, sour, bitter, and salty . . . smooth, silky, crispy, crunchy, chewy. Rather than serving the individual components separately, they are all brought to the table at one time, and it is up to the guest to decide what combination they want to create.

After returning from her weekly expedition to the market, before preparing the lavish Sunday lunch, my mother would lay out her spoils – moist, salty white cheese wrapped in glistening green banana leaves; raw carabao’s milk, forming a thick floating skin upon being boiled on the stove; puto and cutsinta sprinkled with grated coconut; suman with a coconut-caramel dip; fried tofu soaked in a sauce of palm vinegar, soy sauce, and crushed garlic; chopped salted duck eggs (their shells dyed red) with diced tomatoes; the season’s fruits, oozing sweetness – jackfruit, rambutan, lansones, mango, atis, papaya, soursop, three or four different kinds of banana, pineapple, cantaloupe, watermelon, mangosteen, avocado . . . (on those incandescent Sunday afternoons, eating our mother’s plump fruit was like kissing cool refreshing cheeks). We pounced greedily on my mother’s bounty, but I don’t remember ever seeing her eat anything.

I dream of cooking up unstories that are synchronous rather than sequential – shifting compositions of juxtaposed tastes and textures instead of the fixed succession of conflict, crisis, and resolution. Not conflict, but contrast – variable constellations of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty surprising the mind’s tongue. Not crisis and resolution but passionate returnings to those magnetizing moments that gather life’s divergent fluxes into fascinating patterns . . . I’m searching for exotic dishes for a moveable feast. Try this dinuguan. Taste this lengua. These are my body – eat.

Note: Italicized text quoted from Filipino Cuisine by Gerry G. Gelle.

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