Monday, November 14, 2005

Joe Philippines - 10: A Culinary Experience

Going grocery shopping in the Philippines is about as unique of an experience as you can get. Being a westerner, I am used to going into large box like grocery stores full of foods of all kinds stacked neatly on shelves and categorized into aisles. It is the definition of order, which starkly contrasts to the controlled chaos of the Filipino markets. The Filipino market in Baguio is more of a district or several block area in town. Sidewalks crammed filled with smiling natives standing among a sea of baskets and containers holding a wide array of fruits and vegetables. Some look vaguely familiar to ones that I buy in the United States but most look like they were grown out back behind the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. My wife, mother-in-law and her sister, would walk through the sea of produce with nostrils flaring smelling various fruits for ripeness and pinching various things for firmness. I for the most part tried to hang back and act like I was not with them because the venders always would try taking advantage by charging a higher price assuming that I was rich as they believe all westerners are. But my mother-in-law is no slouch when it comes to haggling and she would let them know that she wasn't about to be fooled. After a few lashes of my mother-in-law's sharp tongue, even the most recalcitrant vender would back down to a more reasonable price.

As we accumulated food in various plastic bags, it was an on going game the entire trip to have me "try" various foods. I could always tell when I was biting into something a little bit dubious by watching the eyes of my wife's family and gauging how intently they were looking for my reaction. I humored them by trying it anyway but mostly I ate it for the experience of trying something out of my realm of what I consider normal dining fare. Over the course of my stay I would bite into things sour enough to almost make me swallow my lips and bitter enough to make even the worst enemies appear sweet, always chased by a heaping dose of amused laughter from my in-laws. It is bad enough when I know that I am about to bite into something like that but my in-laws wouldn't make it easy for me and would cook it up in food when I got back to their house. Sometimes I was supposed to eat it and other times it was merely added for flavor though I rarely knew which until after it was swallowed. I finally was able to convince my wife to show me examples of things hidden in the food that I was not supposed to eat and for the most part she did a good job. But every once in awhile, one piece of ginger root would look like a piece potato, and I would treat the table to a whole array of face making as I tried to cleanse my mouth of the taste amidst their chuckles.

Down one narrow alley between tall buildings, we entered into the meat market, very obvious to the casual passerby by the strong odor of blood and flesh drifting out. My wife suggested I stay behind but I wanted to experience everything and so followed them into the dank shadows of the alley. Various racks lined both sides of the alley with meats hung out in the open air, sometimes in whole albeit skinned form and other times in large cuts. All were fresh and had probably been butchered that morning of the night before judging from the pools of blood here and there. The air was thick with flies. We found a vendor with various large cuts of hog lying on a bloody board in front and after studiously inspecting them all, my in-laws selected one with a pointing of their hand and a few words in their native tongue. The vendor picked up the pork and stepped back to a large wooden stump soaked in blood, fat and flies, where he had just chopped the head off a chicken, and proceeded to dice up the meat and put into an empty plastic shopping bag. I must admit, that my stomach roiled a little bit at the thought of eating that later tonight but when it came, I ate it without hesitation and with gusto. To use one of my favorite saying, "Columbus took a chance," and so did I. I never got sick from the food during my entire time there as it was all very well cooked and done so in various strong preservatives like vinegar and soy sauce. To westerners used to the cleanliness of grocery stores, it might seem horrible to deal with meat like that but I rationalized it by thinking of how it had been recently butchered and cooked in comparison to the cuts in the grocery store which were probably a couple weeks old by the time it ever reached our mouths.

Our last stop of the day was in a wide covered alley where numerous stalls containing more varieties of rice than I had ever seen in all my life, lined both sides. I stood around for five minutes as my in-laws wandered here and there, sticking their hands into various open sacks of rice, feeling and smelling for heaven knows what. I finally decided that this was going to take awhile so I found a seat at a bench in the middle of it all and watched as people went about their shopping. It didn't take long for two drunken Filipino men to sidle up and sit beside me on the bench and start talking in an English that between the alcohol and accent was only barely recognizable as such. I started out pretending that I hadn't heard them but they only got louder so then I took to pretending I didn't understand so they leaned in closer and shouted even louder, their breath almost making me drunk. Finally after twenty minutes, my in-laws had finally selected a couple pounds of rice and rescued me from the two drunken men who to their credit, never gave up trying to communicate with me.

Back home, knives clattered in a flurry of chopping, dicing, mincing and slicing of the days haul and shortly it was transferred to various hot woks and pots on the stove. Most perishable food in the Philippines, at least with my in-laws, is bought on a daily basis because cold storage in very limited. Not only was their refrigerator about a third of the size of it's American cousin, it was mostly filled with bottled water and soda. Soon the table would be loaded with a nice pork and vegetable stir fry, a soup with what appeared to be seaweed floating in it, another vegetable medley with whole squid laying limply on top and a blackened fish with blackened eyeballs laying on a platter and staring blankly back at me. Of course, no meal would be complete without a huge pot of rice and the one on our table could have fed the entire state of Iowa with ease even if it was barely enough to feed this family in the Philippines. I did not fight for one of the eyeballs, which are highly prized around a Filipino dining table, nor did I try a squid though I have since eaten many, but I ate my share of everything else. It was tasty, just as long as I was able to avoid eating the flavor garnishes hidden here and there by my in-laws who were intently watching my face for any sort of taste bud reaction.

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