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  1. The Real Thing

    File this under "Wala Lang, Walang Kinalaman Sa Basketball", specifically under "Food and Drinks".

    I just had a long discussion with an old college friend and one of my best friends of all time, Babymaker.

    Babymaker is from an old Albay family, really old school, old roots Bicol, and he makes a mean "laing".

    For lack of a better translation, let me roughly describe this to those unfamiliar with the dish as the top leaves of tubers, cooked in coconut cream, with the usual Filipino spices and seasonings.

    "Here is the basic 'recado' (ingredients): Bagoong Alamang, the colorless variety (a kind of aggressively salty, fermented fish paste), Tinapa (smoked fresh fish), leftover Adobo (a kind of pork braise in soya sauce and vinegar), garlic, onion, ginger, siling labuyo (the red devil chili), siling malaki (the long green finger chili), and native suka (vinegar), and of course kakang gata (first pressing of the coconut cream)," he enumerated.

    "The cooking is very tricky, and only the old masters get it right most - I repeat, most - of the time, that is to say, even the master cooks of Old Bicol will never get the cooking of laing done just right every time," he noted.

    "Genuine Bicol laing, at least as I grew up with it, ends up dry-ish, dark green, all leaves, absolutely no stems, and the coconut cream must have rendered out its natural coconut oil without burning of course, and you cannot, indeed must not, stir or mix while cooking, again while making sure it doesn't scorch or burn. It is as much about timing as it is about technique," he expounded.

    "The stuff you get here in Manila is utter and absolute crap," he teased with his usual derisive guffaw.

    I've tasted his laing a number of times, and indeed he never claimed to be a master cook of the dish, so those times were I would say 50-50, at least in terms of him hitting all the marks of the traditional laing he grew up with.

    One thing I must note however: Although he says he hit the mark maybe only half the times when he served it to me, to my unbiased mind and taste buds, I'd have to say he actually made a delicious laing maybe 9-out-of-10 times.

    That got me to thinking: If the stuff was delicious, even if it wasn't the genuine article, or the real thing, especially to someone who grew up with the dish, and was from the dish's native locale, doesn't that still make it the real thing after all?

    Consider: we cook in order to eat, and of course since we go through the trouble of cooking, we try (or at least I'd like to think most reasonable people try) to cook something delicious. You're going to eat it, you cooked it, you might as well make it taste good, right?

    Now if something is considered genuinely delicious to an eater - whatever that eater's threshold is for "delicious" - does that not make the dish successful, and therefore the real thing?

    It is like that old publicity gimmick, the blind taste test. You get a product, you get two of your competitors' products, you make a bunch of people sample each of the products, and hopefully they choose your product as the best tasting among the lot they tasted.

    To a non-Bicolano, especially to someone who doesn't know how to cook, if a dish strikes us as delicious, then that should be the happy ending for all and sundry, yes? It may not have been cooked perfectly according to the cook's knowledge of how the dish should have been cooked, but if the eater still found it genuinely delicious, then that dish should by all accounts still be considered a success, yes?

    For all we know, had the cook cooked that dish the "right" way, and it had come out "perfect" per the cook's standards, the eater might not have liked the dish. What are we to make of the dish then? That the real deal is actually unpalatable and the "wrong version" of it is the one that is actually delicious?

    My friend of course, known for his bullheadedness on all matters, especially his native cuisine, would have none of it. "I've never had a complaint yet about my laing," he huffed.

    "But my friend," said I, "if your laing was only 50-50 on the mark the times you made it for me, and I still found it delicious 9-out-of-10 times, isn't my opinion of more weight than yours? You are after all cooking it for me, a non-Bicolano."

    "If you were a barbarian, sure, no problem," he gruffly retorted, "but I know you are a civilized man with a sophisticated palate, and I tell you that laing can only prepared the way I have described it, using the ingredients I have enumerated, and anything short of those two things blending in perfect harmony, is a failed laing! And if you think a failed laing is delicious then perhaps I must rethink my opinion of your civility and the sophistication of your palette!" ...
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