The Real Thing
byon 04-05-2017 at 10:30 AM (231 Views)
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!"
He gets excited about his laing, and indeed about a lot of things culinary.
My late father, a lawyer who grew up on his grandmother's home cooking and heirloom recipes, was equally adamant about the real thing when it came to food.
His three personal old favorites were lengua (braised ox tongue with mushrooms and olives), embotido (his grandma's version was wrapped in the fatty membranes from pig entrails, then steamed), kare kare (a stew of cow's entrails, usually tripe and/or intestines, cooked in peanut sauce made from real, ground peanut paste, served with red or pink version of the bagoong my friend uses for his laing). Muck about with these dishes and how they be prepared and my old man would give you hell for it. Although he said the meats in each dish had to be tender, he said they still had to have some bite or chew to them, making them so tender that you could cut them with a spoon was just "wrong".
I once prepared the lengua using canned cream of mushroom soup, and while the flavor was a match, my father didn't appreciate the thickness of the soup-based sauce, nor the nearly-ground up consistency of the mushrooms. He was looking for the thinner sauce with rough chopped mushrooms that he could actually see and bite into.
Unlike my father who has only rudimentary cooking skills, and my friend who is strictly self-taught, I actually did complete some formal culinary training from a 5-star establishment when I was much younger. Even back in training the chef-instructors were always drilling us on the "right way" to do a dish, from preparation to service. I of course cannot argue with a souffle that did not rise, that is clearly a failure no matter how delicious it may still taste. But surely beef bourguignon, the classic French version of beef stew, can be executed in more than one damn way. It is a stew for godsakes, arguably the most forgiving dish to make. It takes a special idiot to mess up a stew.
Which is why I don't know what all the fuss is about the real thing. Shouldn't the ending of all cooking be simply the delicious thing, i.e. if it is delicious then it is the real thing.
Sure, it may not be the way the originators of the dish did it, but then again, as with all things, food and cooking also evolves. And how many of the "standard" recipes were actually "happy mistakes", things left too long, or not long enough in the oven, that may or may not have been set at the correct temperature?
All this talk of the real thing just doesn't seem to make all that much sense when cast in a new light.
Perhaps we should all just take TV Eater Andrew Zimmern's sage advice: "If it looks good, eat it."