Whenever I go home to Baguio and my father’s around, I would often ask him to prepare a favorite dish: the intestines of a pig, blanched and softened, stir-fried in soy sauce and cornstarch and a bit of leek thrown in. That one simple dish of “silet,” best consumed with cold rice and copious amounts of Coca-Cola, is a reminder of home. And somehow, a reminder of being.
I think it was Roland Barthes who once said that to eat a steak rare represents “both a nature and a mortality:” in many ways, it’s a full-blooded experience. The steak is powerful: bloody, primal, “flows to the very blood of man.”
For the lack of steak – unless I’m in the mood for chops – I turn to that other primal thing in an animal. That other thing that flows to the very blood: that other thing that speaks to both nature and mortality. There’s nothing more natural and mortal than the primal, animal thing that is almost always an acquired taste. Unlike steaks or meaty stews, there is no mistaking what offal is and where it came from. It is, for all intents and purposes, the very fiber of the animal.
I always hold a special fondness for “pinapaitan:” tripe, liver, and the gall of the animal thrown in a spicy-sour soup. It’s an allegory in a bowl: one that speaks of all things “hugot.” It is, literally, a most visceral experience. We knew what the animal ate, and perhaps even taste it with every mouthful. We can feel the grit, the most animal of flavors preserved in hot broth. There is no more bitter thing than real gall: outside of broken hearts, regrets, and unrequited love. And yet eating it is oddly satisfying, because all that visceral bitterness warms the heart as it does the gut.
If not “pinapaitan,” brain. A trip to the kebab shop is incomplete without it: a firm, eggy mass of fatty, cloy food that is as dangerous as it is delicious. If “pinapaitan” hits the guts, ox brain hits the brain. A good feed of it sets the back of the neck in an almost comforting vise-grip. “Cutting” the brain with lime juice just heightens the sensation: that the dish feels less dense gives you the motivation to eat more. The meaty kebabs become flavorless, as the brain gets overloaded with the taste and texture of taboo. It’s so bad, it’s good.
Yet not all offal is as pleasant, even for me. I’ve never really acquired a taste for soup flavored with the nether regions of a bull. Or the “leather” of calves, or eyeballs, or hock. For me, “offal” is the guts of the animal. Fish guts, in particular, are so delicious that I don’t care much for the meat of bangus. The liver and the entrails, cooked paksiw-style, is how I like my bangus. I don’t care much for the meat and skin of a lechon, as long as I can have the cheek. It’s simple and delicious food: cheap, filling, and different.
Sometimes I think we don’t eat enough offal. What with boneless and skinless chicken breasts, cream dory fillets, and all sorts of “acceptable” meat lining up chillers and freezers and shelves. Maybe our convenient lifestyles take us far away – too far away – from what our food was before it became food. We settle for a dry chop that we forget how much flavor there is in chewing a bone. Or how a fresh piece of liver, seared quickly, is bloodier and more primal than a rare steak. In a world full of uniform cuts of meat and the expected ways to cook and eat it, I think that offal is the closest experience we can have with meat as nature intended.
Then again, offal’s catching on with these “nose-to-tail” concepts (like Fergus Henderson in the UK), and local restaurants are starting to embrace offal, so much so that they’re serving it up pretty. I don’t mind – and I think it’s a good thing – but there’s something a little off-putting about making the whole thing “gourmet.” It somehow lacks depth, or maybe even allegory. I mean, between a chopping board of split marrow bones sprinkled with gremolata and a piping-hot bowl of bulalo served in a simple plastic bowl, I’d take the latter any day.
I think it has something to do with a closeness with the reasons of why we eat. We eat not only to nourish the body, but most things around us are nourished by food. Whether we sit together as a family on the dining table, or enjoy candle-light dates with the ones we love, or share tables with co-workers during lunch breaks, food connects us all. But we also have a connection with food: offal’s just about one of the few things in the modern world that doesn’t generally come from factory processes or separators or organic greenhouses. It’s one you come across in a wet market, sold atop dripping-wet tile counters and weighed on rusting scales. We know it’s intestine when we see it. We know it’s brains when we taste it. We know it’s liver, and how many days old it is. And in a world of processing and hermetically-sealed packages, offal is still somehow a last stand for knowing what we eat, and eating what we know.
That thing somehow still matters to me, whenever I ask my father to cook my favorite dish. When the big, brownish-gray, blubbering mass of stomach and intestine is lifted from the big pot and cut into bite-sized pieces, it’s both nature and mortality to me. That this is the food I grew up eating. This is the kind of food that I always looked forward to. This is the kind of food that I’ll probably ask for my last meal, because it is – quite literally – all the spilled guts thrown in. And it tastes pretty good: bloody, primal, and hits you right there.