Before anything else: this is not going to be a food review, or a PR piece. ***** In an 1843 diary, Alexandre Dumas – novelist, traveler, foodista – wrote quite fondly about the pizzas he encountered in the streets of Naples. Back then, pizza was simple fare sold from big copper tins, and would probably wouldn’t cost more than a few coins. Toppings were also simple: Dumas spoke of pizzas topped with oil, lard, cheese, tomatoes, and anchovies. These are things that many of us continue to see in modern pizza. But there’s that last bit: “modern pizza.”
1. 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. 2. 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.” 3. 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.
Saigon: a tide of motorcycles, tourists, and lately, American culture. Where East met West, both in war and peace. Where Old meets New, both in love and trepidation. Where Viet Cong hats and rubber-tire sandals meet iPhones and Louis Vuitton bags. This is where a Subway sandwich shop can coexist alongside a banh mi stand, where a Heineken is held at the same regard as the 333. This is where Victor Hugo, Sun Yat Sen, and Nguyen Binh Khiem are venerated alongside Uncle Ho, Quang Duc, and Ronald McDonald. In Ho Chi Minh’s city, the world’s sharpest contrasts mingle together. It shows in the roads, the tourist destinations, and the food. You spend a few minutes at the improvised cinema at the Cu Chi Tunnels listening to documentary/propaganda films about “American Killer Heroes,” and come back a few hours later to the densely-populated districts of Ho Chi Minh City dotted with Burger Kings and KFCs and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchens. Here’s a country that swells with pride over its sound defeat of American forces in the Vietnam War, and swells with joy over the opening of McDonald’s branches. And then there’s the Lunch Lady, almost always preceded by the travels of Anthony Bourdain. He spoke of it in superlatives: the broth that the gods suckled from. Whether it’s in the crowded backpacker hostels of Pham Ngu Lao or the gentrified establishments of Ngo Duc Ke, tourists speak of Saigon’s best-kept secret with a certain veneration. For Bourdain: the Ibn Battuta of…
The bakeries only have it at set hours of the day, at limited quantities. The race for “authentic ramen” is one for getting everything right, with at least one shop perfectly happy saying it gets it “Wrong.” And then there’s the humble breaded pork chop/canteen kitchen attempts at “Japanese-style cordon bleu,” making waves all over the restaurant scene alongside unlimited cabbage offerings and “shoyu” being the order of the day. Sociologists and cultural theorists have taken pains to describe these new patterns of consumption. One referred to “McDonaldization” as a reference to an over-rationalized society. Another coined “conspicuous consumption,” debunking the whole idea of “new” and ascribing these patterns to the lifestyles of savages and barbarians. Still another looked at the “affluent society” and sees a private sector basking in the light of wealth, but a public sector that remains dark and dank and stagnated. (Ritzer, Veblen, Galbraith, in that order.) I have nothing but contempt for the cronut – if only because I don’t get it and I don’t like sweet stuff in general – but that feeling does not translate to ramen or tonkatsu. Pork bone soup is to die for, and there’s nothing like a feed of panko-breaded pork loin. But I can’t help to feel that affluence is somehow satirized by these three things.
This is my last night here in Kuningan, Jakarta: the new bustling and cosmopolitan center of the second largest metropolitan area in the world. This is the urban cocoon of Indonesia’s capital, where foreign tourists and people on business trips are greeted with something familiar. I spent most of my week-long “mission” of sorts in this area, so I couldn’t say that I have explored Jakarta, or that I know it like the back of my hand. I’m not here on tour, but on a business trip: whatever exploring I wanted to do, I had to cram in a day. No Bandung, no Kota, no Java Jazz Festival and Joss Stone, but enough of an authentic experience for me to miss it when I get back to Manila. A week wouldn’t be enough to experience “authentic Jakarta,” much more so if work – not tourism – is the agenda here. What Jakarta has offered me in a day, though, is something that I will never forget.
“If You Knew Sushi” by Nick Tosches is one of those articles that define, for me, the way of food writing: something lost in photos of food before eating or culinary journalism by dumping the contents of the menu on an article, or watermarked pictures of food from the lenses of everything from a DSLR to a camera phone. All that dovetails quite nicely with Prof. Solita Monsod’s column yesterday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, where she writes that pork is more luxury than necessity. Which brings me to ask – in the tradition of this newfangled fixation with appropriating German (philosophical) terminology for the most inappropriate situations – what is the (modern) Filipino Weltanschauung on meat products?
To some, the gist of “Filipino style” has always been about sweetness. There’s our sweetened abobo, the sugars added to tapa, the sweet sauces in lumpia, and that staple of Filipino kitchens: banana ketchup. While pasta purists would frown upon our Americanized, Hispanicized, hotdog-heavy interpretation of spaghetti Bolognese, it is something that we could, perhaps, take into consideration in our search for identity. The Filipino-style spaghetti, for me, is not a dish brought about by the idea of “sweetness” in Filipino cuisine. Rather, it is dish made from the cupboard. There are many variations to the Filipino-style spaghetti that speak to its origins in the eccentricities and quirks of the Filipino kitchen: hot dogs, for one. Canned tuna, for others, and still for others cans of corned beef thrown into the mix. The thing with Filipino-style spaghetti is that it is not deliberately shopped for: in many ways it is an analogue to Creole jambalaya. We put whatever we have in the pan.
Grimod de la Reynière – the original foodie – wrote a bunch of essays that, in today’s food blogging world, would make him a foodie. After all, Grimod was an expert in: Reviewing restaurants and writing the occasional revenge-motivated essay; Food trivia on ingredients and foodstuffs that you can’t have, and; Waxing philosophically on random food items as metaphors for life. For all intents and purposes, Grimod “blogged” way before we started going into openings of restaurants in malls clutching netbooks and iPads because we review food. Or become part of a “food blogger” niche. Of course, Grimod did not walk into restaurants for the sole purpose of taking pictures of food, as is the norm today. It was the 1800’s: Grimod did not paint still life of bouillabaisse or made woodcuts of suckling pigs. Grimod ate, analyzed, left, and ate again. For all intents and purposes, Grimod was the Big Bad… Gourmand. Don’t get me wrong: I like reading food blogs, I like foodies, and I think that it’s a sad state of blogging in the Philippines to think that such a happy topic is more prone to flak than, say, political blogging. The bashing of a “member of the Yellow Horde” is nothing compared to the online flogging of a “gatecrasher” or a “free food blogger;” mostly because it affects social taste, and hits us pretty bad in the stomach. Had Grimod lived today and blogged in the Philippines, he would have been so hated, reviled, and pretty…
Not being a food blogger or a foodie or anything – I have no plans to resurrect a dead and decaying food blog that I maintain – means that I can do a few things that would be no-no’s to consummate foodies/foodistas/food bloggers within six degrees of separation. “Reviewing food” would be one thing. Or use adjectives I hate; while I used the word “idiot” in 19 entries in this blog, the word “succulent” was only used twice. Or take good pictures of food. For example: Above is the Malaysian national dish, nasi lemak. Me, my girlfriend Jam, and her cousin Chill had dinner at a restaurant called Nasi Lemak in Robinson’s Galleria (no, the meal was not free, and yes, it’s ethical to say that), apparently ran by Chef Gene Gonzalez. While Jam and Chill had… succulent… plates of Hainanese Chicken Rice to go with the delectable tom yum goong and the exceptional Malaysian chicken curry, I chose the nasi lemak. “A complete meal,” I justified to myself, anticipating the fun I would have mixing coconut cream rice with chicken, fish, egg, peanuts, and dried anchovies. That, or I was preparing myself for philosophizing in the comfort of my own toilet bowl. Suffice to say the dinner affair between me and a plate full of food became a battle of brawn, appetite, and shredded bits of chicken.