Anyway, I decided that on the second anniversary of this journal's re-christening, an entry would be appropriate. Despite having few of my own kitchen exploits to discuss, I still had an interesting culinary year. In 2009 I added a few notorious dishes and exotic animals to my list of things I've eaten, by way of a three-week trip to the Philippines and the dear friends of mine with an eye -- and a stomach -- for unusual foods.
I'll start with a necessary cut-tag over a necessarily long-winded, loving overview of my dining experiences in the Philippines.
January 2009: Eating the Flora and Fauna of da Muddarlan
It's in my nature as a Filipino to eat the way I do. I'm a sloppy eater, not afraid to dig in with my hands (like, say, bust out my kamayan skillz) or drip from my chin. I like fresh fruits, funk, flavor, fat, and other things starting with F. Perhaps Americans are scared off by this "carpe victus" approach, or the complex, politically incorrect flavor palette. But if the Thai can become class, Filipinos in America should try harder to make a gleaming show of their mind-blowing food.
As a self-confessed fruit fanatic, my favorite part about vacationing in the Philippines for my grandparents' 50th anniversary was the produce. We're talking real, organic fruit without the flavor-sapping cosmetic enhancements geared toward grocery chain displays. I had fresh passion fruit, lychees, and langka (jackfruit); I smelled fresh-cut durian (and left the room); I sought but did not find the out-of-season star apple.
Mostly, though, I ate a ton of mangoes. The mangoes are smaller, softer, sweeter, orange and buttery Malay mangoes, different from the red-and-green, tougher and more sour Central- and South-American varieties. They puree the flesh with a little ice, and that's a "mango shake": about 75 cents American and available at every restaurant and bar. Get it regular, or order a less-ripe, more sour "green mango shake."
Coconuts are not simply relegated to dried and shredded/flaked formats there, either. Instead, young coconuts are shaved in one spot to reveal the tender flesh forming a thin seal over the fresh, untainted water inside. Stick a straw in that sucker and enjoy the undiluted, unsweetened juice. Pictures to follow! I told you, I'm a girl about projects and will get around to the culinary photo tour.
And dear Filipino-Americans blessed with backyards: if you're going to plant a fruit tree, why not plant a calamansi tree instead of lemon? This, IMHO, is the greatest citrus fruit in the world. It's hard to find, it's cute and it goes with everything -- like a perfect pair of shoes, only delicious. Give bags and bags of your harvest to your pinoy friends. It'll make you popular.
Now, let me drop some quick knowledge about meat in Pacific island nations. Americans eat a lot of beef because they have a lot of room for cows as well as the swollen-bellied demands of the constituency. In the Philippines, as well as in Japan, Thailand, etc., there ain't no room for the beeves to become beef, if thar be beeves of which to speak. Instead, those few cows roam and graze around the paddies, farms, and villages, remaining comically skinny though happily uneaten. Beef there is as common as goat meat. Seafood and chicken are plentiful and popular; lechon baboy, or pit-roasted pig, is our love-letter to Tony Bourdain.
An interesting alternative to beef that I had out there was carabao, Philippine water buffalo. It wasn't beef, really, cured and grilled and then dipped in vinegar until it was really just a protein for the sake of protein. Its taste was a bit funky, its texture somewhat tough. Still, there's an animal you don't see on menus often.
I also happened upon a place where the menu offers alligator and ostrich. Naturally I had them both. I'd had alligator at Ragin' Cajun back in Redondo, but cured/grilled ostrich? Not yet, and I still haven't tried it in burger form. The ostrich barbecue was delicious. Ostrich is like a super-bird, its meat hearty and bovine though still yielding and avian.
As an added bonus, a family friend with connections to Australia brought with her some KANGAROO meat, which was divine. My grandfather grilled it up and ate it with a beer and a few friends, myself included. The meat is beefy, lean and tender with a somewhat nutty aftertaste. I'd definitely jump at the chance to have more (lol jump, kangaroo).
Other culinary delights include: the average squid's length being about that of the average adult forearm; Grandma's traditional and magical pinikpikan, a chicken stew with magic properties; stopping in the old Spanish town of Vigan for a legitimate bagnet (Filipino chicharron); and market-fresh tuna prepared sashimi-style and eaten on the beautiful Ilocos Norte beaches during sunset.
Perhaps you're the kind of person who shies away from anything and everything that Filipino cooking might stand for, but I'm proud of my people and my palate. It's a truly puzzling melange of influences, differing even from north to south, but still of one nation on the whole. We're everywhere, and we bring everything with us. And it's all dank as eff.
On the home front, more of the same had been consumed. A few good restaurants were confirmed (like Lomita Thai, and Nazelie's Lebanese Cafe in San Pedro), and a few were lost (like Nancy's By The Beach). I tried okonomiyaki -- Japanese savory pancakes -- for the first time this year, as well as the "herbal snow" ice treat at Los Angeles's legendary Mashti Malone. Simply put, 2010 had better have more than a few of those experiences in store.
Most shockingly, however, was experiencing a Century Egg. Our resident egg fanatic, Erich, located a pack of them at an Asian market, and in the late-night munchie spirit we ate these pretty, pungent things. Good God, it's not a taste but a burn. The ammonia and sulfur tastes in the yolk burn into your ears, your nose, your throat. But I must say, as far as art, these things were a wonder. Again, I say, pictures to follow. I have some great macros of the snowflake-esque designs on the darkened, toughened egg white.
So in 2010, if I don't get around to cooking as much as I'd like to (which is always a lot), I'll at least make a point to look for those odd menu items. The stories, the knowledge, the experience of it will always be worth a couple extra bucks. I'm a brave gourmand in my own tastes, and I hope to translate that someday in my own kitchen exploits. So long as there are willing guinea pigs, there will be food.