Monday, August 04, 2008

Amuse-Biatch Presents “The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating,” Part 1 (Do Not Read This If You Are Squeamish; We Mean It)

At the top of our list of favorite contemporary writers is British novelist, poet and journalist James Hamilton-Paterson, who, as The Guardian points out in one of the profiles on him, is the object of “a tiny cult” that includes J.G. Ballard, Michael Ondaatje and Barry Humphries (a/k/a Dame Edna Everage, from whom, of course, we shamelessly stole “possums”).

For something like 20 years, Hamilton-Paterson split his time between Europe and the Philippines, and in 1996 The Guardian published an article on the cooking of his beloved adopted country. We have kept a copy ever since, and since it seems to be unavailable on the Internet, we are going to bring it to you in two parts (the second and most vivid part on Wednesday). But it deals with eating all sorts of creatures and things that may disturb the more sensitive and squeamish among you, possums. Don’t say you weren’t warned. Still, if you give the article a chance, you’ll have something to remember.

The Rrrruff!! Guide to Eating

By James Hamilton-Paterson

The Guardian (London), May 18, 1996

I first woke up to how rigidly one’s own culture defines the edible when I spent a year in Libya back in the mid-sixties. I was interested by my initial revulsion to eating a live locust. Tripoli then was something of a hick town, many of whose older inhabitants were true sons of the desert. In the locust season these people could be seen sitting outside their houses, gossiping and idly eating the insects alive. As though shelling peanuts, they would strip off the wings and legs and pop the body into their mouths.

The day inevitably came when I was hospitably offered a locust. It was partly a tribute to public school food that I was able to eat it with stoical panache, but only partly. I was curious, and that helped. The taste was faintly greenish and suety, and I remember being anxious to chew it all at once before my tongue could detect any tiny movements of protesting mandible or pulsing abdomen.

The tradition of eating in a spirit of curiosity exists even in Britain. Eminent Victorian naturalists such as Frank Buckland and Vincent Holt did it all the time. Buckland ate anything, including exotic zoological specimens, and was the one who wrote “A roast field mouse – not a house muse – is a splendid bonne bouche for a hungry boy. It eats like a lark.” Holt’s excellent book Why Not Eat Insects? (London, 1885) was full of satisfying dishes which any Briton with access to a garden could prepare, such as Boiled Neck of Mutton with Wireworm Sauce and Moths on Toast. Some years ago a reception was held at, I think, the Royal Geographical Society, at which cocktail sandwiches spread with Holt’s woodlouse paste recipe were served. “Better than shrimp” was the widespread verdict, and one might think a taste for it would catch on if only woodlice were conveniently available by the pint, like winkles. Wake up, Sainsbury’s.

I thought about all this on my most recent spell in the Philippines, which remains my favorite country bar none partly because it offers novel experiences of every conceivable kind with high good humour. Among these are gastronomic pleasures and challenges which leave one lost in admiration at human ingenuity and discrimination. Discrimination, because the recipes often rely on a palate tuned to fine shades of flavour that elude the untrained.

The supremacist reputation of French gastronomy and oenophily have tended to bludgeon us into thinking that tastes become cruder the further one gets from Europe. Yet it is not just Basque chefs who can identify from a beef stew the exact pasture where the animal grazed. Tea experts from Darjeeling to Japan will often identify a source of water from taste alone. Similarly, I discovered, a feaster in the mountain provinces of the northern Philippines can tell to the nearest day how long a piece of salted pork was packed in its earthenware crock simply by its flavour.

I had long since tried all the old party favorites in the village where I live: bayawak (a large, iguana-like lizard); dog in one guise or another; fruit bat; and, of course, that ubiquitous national favourite, balut. Balut are hawked in the streets of almost any town: hard-boiled duck eggs which have been fertilized and in which the embryonic chick’s tiny beak and little folded wings are well defined but still soft. Eaten warm with salt they are superb as well as nutritious.

This time, though, my travels took me some hundred of miles to the north, to the late Ferdinand Marcos’s home territory of Ilocos Norte. I remembered Libya as soon as I encountered pinaluksong hipon or “jumping salad”. The hipon are tiny live shrimp which leap and squirm on the plate. I was told they could be subdued with a squeeze of lime juice, but this seemed only to provoke mine. Maybe the juice stung their eyes.

The taste is wonderful, quite unknown to people who have never eaten seafood which has not been locked in ice since it died. They do twitch a little in the mouth: the effect is not unlike the crackling sherbet (Space Dust and Moon Rocks) British children could buy a few years ago.

When you eat jumping salad it is easy to believe in sympathetic magic, which claims that the soul or essence of the victim passes into the devourer – the theory which once gave us larks’ tongue pate. It made me feel sprightly for hours afterwards. Don’t be tempted to dust the shrimp, however lightly, with black pepper: it overpowers them. A judicious drop or two of fresh ginger juice adds bite.

1 comment:

nikkinoodles said...

That is, quite possibly, the grossest thing I've ever read. That is some sick shit! Now, where is part two? lol Did you guys see the story in the NY Times that China is banning dog meat during the Olympics?