One of our massage therapists recently asked me that question while we were setting up a Flic Spa Signature Royal Package. The four hour treatment is a combination of nearly every service we offer, to be lavished upon one lucky client. Spa appropriate snacks are included, like fresh fruit and roasted coconut juice. Preparing for the luxury treatment must have made her think of including a high-priced doughnut.
“That’s crazy,” I said. “What is it made of -- gold?”
“How’d you know?”
“You’re kidding me.”
“It’s covered in gold. A Filipino restaurant makes it.”
“Really? But wait, gold can’t be digested. It’s a waste. Literally.”
“Ooh, and it also has purple yam filling.”
“You mean ube?” I once brought ube my mother made to school one day, excited to share it with my classmates. One girl took a bite and spat it out.
“Yuck!” she said. “It tastes like play dough!”
“How come you know what play dough tastes like?”
When exactly did the lowly ube morph from shabby to chic? To my mind, Filipino food is never excessive. It is bold and earthy; never gold plated. It is a cultural casserole, fashioned from homegrown and Spanish recipes, loaded with local ingredients and cooked with techniques from southern China. Our humble grub is the culinary world’s flavor of the month, the undiscovered gastronomic frontier. But we Filipinos have been brown-bagging leftovers and eating them semi-secretly for decades.
“Hey, what the heck is that black stuff?”
“Blood -- type O.”
I rarely shared my Filipino dishes with non-Filipinos, weary of the suspicion and disgust they often elicit. I suffered from food shame, and I would mumble embarrassed excuses for the chopped pineapple in my macaroni salad. Our receptionist Sharon, of Haitian descent, suffered from the same food shame. I thought she would be more empathetic with me, but instead she declared that some Filipino dishes grossed her out.
“Blood stew, Lerrick. Eew!”
“Didn’t you just tell me you suck out the eyes from fried fish?”
“That’s different. Blood is yucky.”
“And eyeballs aren’t? Gravy is mostly made of blood.”
“But gravy is delicious.”
In my culture, wasting food is disgraceful and disrespects the life of the animals we slaughter. I imagine Filipinos watching the prom scene in the movie Carrie, when a bucket of pig’s blood beans the main character on the head:
“Jesus-Mary-Joseph, what a waste! That’s at least two full pots of blood stew!”
“Yeah! And they didn’t even eat the pig!”
Every animal part must be consumed, except for bones or fish scales, (which, by the way, the beauty industry pounds into a translucent powder for your shimmery eyeshadows – go Google it). When I was living in Manila, I witnessed the perfect confluence of food frugality and our penchant for witticisms. On top of a red hot grill sizzled a street vendor’s barbecue specials.
“Sir, what’ll it be?” the vendor asked me. Clouds of ashy smoke engulfed what he was cooking.
“What you got?” I asked. He pointed to a sign behind him: 747, Adidas and Helmets.
“What are those?”
“Oh, 747 is chicken wings, Adidas is chicken feet and Helmets is chicken heads.”
My father is a World War II survivor, and hoarded food as though the Japanese Imperial army were still rationing his meals. I was tossing a can of garbanzo beans I found in the back of his pantry when he spotted me.
“Eh! Why are you throwing that out?” he asked me.
“Because it’s a hundred years old.”
“It’s canned! It doesn’t spoil.”
“The can’s swollen and rusted.”
“Eh, so wasteful!”
“How about this -- I’ll throw this out and buy you a new can of garbanzos.”
“Eh, garbanzos are disgusting.”
Some food doesn’t start out disgusting. My American friend Lana had traveled to Seoul, Korea on business. Famished after the long flight, she began to eat some Korean trail mix and was enjoying it immensely -- until she peered into the bag. Dried anchovies, heads still attached, were staring squarely at her with opaque, accusatory eyes. She flung the bag of trail mix across the room.
Speaking of anchovies, my sister was shopping for Asian groceries with her Australian husband.
“It says boil in water, milk and sugar for ten minutes.” He continued to read the instructions quietly.
“Well," he said. "I guess we’re not getting this.”
“It says ‘garnish with dried, whole anchovies’. What the eff!”
I admit, some of the food Filipinos eat can be pretty disgusting to foreigners, like deep fried chicken intestines or -- God help me -- dog meat stew. For the record, I don’t know any Filipino who eats dogs. Nowadays, the practice is neither commonplace nor acceptable. I am the proud father of three rambunctious dogs, and for me, eating them is equivalent to cannibalism. This may be the topic of another blog, but why do some animals become pets while others become entrees? And where do we humans draw the line? Once, on a trip to Hawaii, I looked on with astonishment as a woman devoured a ham sandwich in front of her beloved pet pig.
One of the most revolting Filipino foods is balut, a hard boiled duck egg with a grisly surprise: a tiny duckling embryo. I have always found balut abhorrent, but Oliver likes to eat them in public, a half dozen one after the other, in a self-imposed double-dare. “You have to eat it with your eyes closed,” he said to me. I tried that, but my tongue could still pick out the undeveloped beak and the baby feathers. Even I have my limits -- the gross factor wins out, which makes me a balut coward, which delights Oliver’s competitive nature. Balut was once featured in Fear Factor, the TV show where, for a cash prize, contestants are dared to eat repulsive chow, like horse rectums with the anus still attached, or worse, living long-legged spiders! The winner was a Korean-American who chewed his way through the “food” in half the time as the other contestants, who were disqualified for vomiting on air.
I can’t think of the American version of balut; that is, food you eat just to flaunt your supremacy over a gag reflex. Many people loathe commercial or fast food, but mostly out of conscientious objection to the industrial food complex and its intractable impact on American obesity.
Of course, there are people who find no food objectionable, and will eat just about anything for pleasure. One of our former therapists, an American, is the most adventurous omnivore I have ever met. She will eat ghastly foods and ask for seconds. As a bon voyage gift, I gave her a dozen balut eggs and four bottles of Filipino ketchup, which is made of bananas, sugar and vinegar, mashed into a paste and dyed a fluorescent red. She ate the balut with the banana ketchup without pausing for breath. Flabbergasted, I asked her what food she would never eat.
“Definitely not dogs or cats. But really, I’ll try anything.”
“How about Soup Number Five?”
“Soup made of bull testicles.”
“Yuck. Okay, maybe just one testicle.”
I can visualize her surviving a plane crash in the Andes, standing first in line to cannibalize the dead co-pilot. “Hmm, he tastes like chicken,” I imagined her saying. “And look, I kept my eyes open. Please pass the banana ketchup!”
Food disgust is a two way street. I remember as a kid sitting at a dinner prepared by Aunt Lina, the lovely Italian American wife of my mother’s cousin. It was our first meal in America outside our home. Aunt Lina brought out a tray of lasagna, her specialty. Up to that point, the only pasta we knew was Filipino style spaghetti (the “h” is not silent but pronounced clearly) boiled until it was squishy and thick as pencils, the sauce fortified with white sugar and garnished with canned Vienna sausages. Aunt Lina’s lasagna, with its sour tomato sauce and pungent melted cheese, looked and smelled to us like fresh, steaming vomit. We refused to eat a single bite of it, much to Aunt Lina’s disappointment and my mother’s acute embarrassment.
“How shameful,” my mother exclaimed on the car ride home. “You couldn’t take just one bite?”
“It looked like somebody already ate it,” my sister said.
“Well,” my mother said with a laugh. “I suppose. My poor cousin, forced to eat Lina’s cooking.”
Sometimes food disgust is a figment of one’s imagination. I know a college professor who was eating a celebratory dinner hosted by an indigenous tribe of headhunters in the northern Philippines. The entrée, placed in front of him with a flourish, was the unthinkable: a hairless, spit-roasted field rat. Not wanting to appear ungracious or ungrateful, he summoned up all his courage and attacked it with a knife and fork. The dinner host, a tribal leader who had attended a course the professor taught in Manila, looked his way.
“So, how did you like your suckling pig?”
“Yes, did you like it?“
"I do now. May I have another?”
Then there are people who find most foods disgusting. A former officemate ate only two things for lunch: chicken salad sandwich or tuna salad sandwich. She was like a dog that ate only two kinds of kibble. I once told her that, during a business trip to Moscow, I had ordered bear meat steak, in an uncharacteristic act of thrill seeking. Sadly, my dinner mate threatened to leave the restaurant if I dared to eat it in front of her.
“Ugh,” my officemate said. “I hate bear meat.”
“You? Miss Chicken Salad? You’ve had bear meat?”
“I’m from Canada. We ate bear meat all the time. Elk and deer, too. Too gamey.”
As for me, I thought I knew just about every gross-out food available in Asian cuisine. That is, until I went shopping at a Korean supermarket with my mother-in-law. At the frozen meat aisle, she sighed loudly. “I wish they had bahay-bata,” she said.
“Bahay-bata,” I repeated. I had never heard the phrase before. Bahay, I thought. That’s “house”. And bata, that’s “child”. House child? Child-house? Suddenly, the meaning clicked.
“Oh my God. Mommy, did you mean uterus?”
“Yes. But I doubt they have it.”
My mother-in-law is a magnificent cook, and she could make a lovely stew out of anything, even pork uterus. But I knew she would coerce me to go ahead, try it, at least a little, just one, try it.
I peered into the freezer. I picked up a package full of what looked like pale, flattened hearts. I held it up to my nose, to make sure I was not misreading the label: Pork Uterus.
“Mommy, here,” I croaked. She took it from me and rotated it in her left hand.
“Well, look at that.” She tossed it back into the freezer. “Ah, it’s no good.”
“Why not? Is it spoiled?”
“No,” she said, disappointed. “They scraped off all the blood. It’s better with a little blood.”
I let out a little scream, and then a laugh, at first thankful and then repentant that the sacrificial sow had undergone a D & C uterus cleaning before being butchered.
Nowadays, people in America are more adventurous in their culinary choices. I welcome the broader product choices at our local supermarket -- Latino produce, Asian sauces, Arab spices. Many restaurants have purloined our ingredients and techniques, to literally and figuratively add spice to their stale menus. To which I say, purloin away! Anything to mitigate my food shame.
In the end, which is the most disgusting: a pork uterus stew; a gold encrusted doughnut; or a live spider? One engages the gag reflex, the next, the anti-waste reflex and the last, the fight-or-flight reflex. We eat what we know, constrained by cultural brainwashing or whatever internal limits preclude us from trying something new. I hope you meet someone like my mother-in-law. She will introduce you to a new dish and persuade you to go ahead, try it, at least a little, just one, try it.
Me? I say, pass me a plate of Aunt Lina’s hot vomit.