Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Intrinsic Hazards of Phillipine Cuisine

Over the weekend I was tuned into the show “Taboo” on the National Geographic Channel and watched in horror as they showcased the Philippine delicacy bellut. For the uninitiated, bellut is a fertilized duck egg that is allowed to develop until it is just about ready to hatch. The egg is then hard-boiled, allowed to ferment and is then served to the natives and extremely intoxicated American servicemen in local drinking establishments. It is a disgusting entrée to behold and a savage assault on the palate, tasting about like what one would expect a duck fetus aborted late term to taste like, but is rumored to have aphrodisiacal qualities. That is the only reason why I have consumed several dozen of these deplorable delicacies (the girls residing in the Olongapo area have a talent for really wearing you out) when I visited the Philippines for several weeks in late 1992.

Amazingly, this was not the worst dish that the locals can throw at you in the Philippine Archipelago. Though not quite as aesthetically offensive as bellut, I was exposed to another frightful food item in one of Luzon’s more remote villages located fairly close to Clark Air Base, the American military installation that was wiped off of the map by the volcanic Mt Pinatubo in 1991. The real name of this dish escapes me but if my memory serves me correctly it sounded something like bah-glong. It consists essentially of fish that has been pulverized into a sort of paste and then, whether by design or as the result of chronic lack of electricity, and thus, refrigeration in the outlying villages, also allowed to ferment. It smells like rotten fish, it tastes like rotten fish and is so vile that we could not even get the dogs to eat it, and God knows we tried.

The village we tried this vile concoction in was the place that my Master Chief’s girlfriend was raised. It was well outside the designated limits of the zone we were permitted to enjoy liberty. Apparently, this place was a hotbed of New People’s Army activity. More commonly known as the NPA, the New People’s Army was the communist factor that, along with brigands formed from the ranks of ex-soldiers defeated in one of the multiple coup attempts against Corazon Aquino in the 1980s and the Muslim guerrillas of the southern islands, formed one of the three insurgencies that President Ramos was dealing with while we were there. Despite its name and manifesto, the NPA form of communism seemed to be conspicuously devoid of Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist rhetoric. Instead of being hell-bent upon establishing a dictatorship of the proletariat, they seemed more intent upon punching bullet holes into corrupt politicians and policemen using their authority to shake down a peasantry that had a hard enough time getting by as it was. As far as I was concerned, more power to them. Aside from their penchant for trying to undermine a government that enjoyed the tacit support of the US, they seemed awfully pro-American for disciples of Marx’s manifesto and, at least among Yankee servicemen who had the pleasure of actually meeting them, were jokingly re-christened as the “Nicest People Around”.

Still, the NPA remained an entity that one would not want to be on the bad side of so on our way to this village, my Master Chief took great pains in explaining to us rural etiquette and adamantly ordered us to be on our very best behavior. One of the items he pressed upon us repeatedly was how rude it was to refuse food that was offered to you. He stressed that the people residing in the village did not have a lot to eat and turning down offered sustenance was gravely insulting. Then, after spending the better part of forty-five minutes lecturing us on how to get along with the locals, he proceeded to engage his native girlfriend in an incredibly animated argument that lasted the rest of the way to our destination.

Whatever the argument was about (we did what we could to tune it out and pretend it was not happening), it appeared to end as our jeepney pulled in front of the hut we were visiting. What we did not know was that Noni, our boss’s girlfriend, was still harboring a grudge and would soon exact her revenge upon my Master Chief and take the rest of us down with him as well.

The Philippines is a rather diverse land with hundreds of languages. There are over 60 dialects of Tagolog spoken on the island of Luzon alone. The only person that spoke the lingo of the village we were visiting was Noni so we were pretty much at her mercy. Once we settled in Noni said something to her mother, at whose house we were visiting, causing her to disappear inside of the hut she lived in and return with a small bowl of the bah-glong stuff I described earlier and a larger bowl of what I assumed to be the Philippine version of tortilla chips. The stench hit us like a ton of bricks and our stomachs weakened considerably as we hoped that the contents of the bowl were meant for something other than ingestion. These aspirations were crushed as Noni casually strolled up, dipped a chip in the vile concoction and nonchalantly tossed it into her mouth before walking away. Reluctantly, all of us followed suit. We then averaged two bottles of Red Horse beer a piece in a futile attempt to get the taste out of our mouths.

The bah-glong then sat untouched until Noni’s mother saw that none of us were exactly rushing in for a second serving. Through Noni, she asked us if we liked the grotesque gruel she had served us and, trying to stick to etiquette according to Master Chief, we enthusiastically helped ourselves to another serving while raving about its succulence. We all just barely managed to suppress a rapid succession of dry-heaves that were dangerously close to turning wet. When Noni and her mother were both out of eyeshot, we all grabbed chips and, after scooping up gargantuan helpings of the bah-glong, tried to feed them to the dogs. Now, I personally love dogs though I would be the first to admit that they are, in essence, particularly nasty animals. A dog is a creature that will not give a second thought to liberating a midnight snack from an unguarded litter box but apparently, even their culinary standards are too high for them to consider fermented fish paste an edible dietary supplement. They wanted no part of it whatsoever, so when Noni’s mother returned to our table she caught six American servicemen red-handed holding chips brimming over with decomposing fish flesh. Of course, all of them were then consumed with feigned relish.

Eventually, we were served with something much more palatable. In fact the courses that followed were absolutely delicious but then again, once you’ve spent an hour eating aquatic carrion, I’m sure gangrenous monkey scrotum marinated in cat urine would have tasted like Kobe Beef. The rest of our visit turned out to be incredibly fun and enlightening, becoming one of the most rewarding outings I ever had in my military career.

The nightmare did not truly begin until about 3am, once we were all back home in our apartments and for the most part, sound asleep. However hesitant an American may be about putting bah-glong into his body, he is given very little choice in regards to the urgency with which it is expelled. This can cause dire complications if you share an apartment with your girlfriend and two other couples with only one bathroom between the six of you.

My trouble started with a benign rumbling in my upper gut. I did not immediately realize it, but this was the phrase, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” translated into intestinal-ese. Then, as if my bowel network was the digestive version of the Daytona 500, someone flipped on the green light and signaled that the race had begun. I shot out of bed and raced to the bathroom as the contents of my stomach raced for the checkered flag which, judging from the pressure in my gut, I gauged to be about six feet past my posterior portal.

Unbeknownst to me, Bob, who was one of my roommates, was hit with the same diarrhetic distress at almost the exact same moment that I was and we nearly collided while exiting opposite bedroom doors. Bob was kind of a troll-like guy with a balding head, Freddie Mercury mustache and a body built by Buddha. He was running completely naked towards the toilet clutching both his mouth and his backside and, not wanting to run into a nude fat guy threatening to burst from both ends, I paused for a fraction of a second. This allowed Bob to take the lead and seize potty privileges. I was left standing on the wrong side of the door, doubled over in agony with my knees pressed firmly together while I gouged fingernail marks into the Formica countertop where the kitchen began.

I was able to maintain my position for about a minute, one of the longest I have ever experienced in my entire life. While trying to deal with my own discomfort I could hear Bob’s epic struggle on the other side of the door in very grotesque detail. First, I heard the sound of Bob hurling what was left of his stomach contents into the toilet followed shortly afterwards by the sounds of porcelain-echoed flatulence as the other end was taken care of. Even though I was in serious trouble myself, I couldn’t help but laugh as I pictured him sitting on the throne performing one job and then desperately dropping to all fours to take care of another without being able to take the time to flush first. I quit laughing when I heard both noises obnoxiously sounded off simultaneously, instantly realizing that something had gone horribly awry in there. Perhaps because I was concerned for the welfare of my friend or maybe just out of morbid curiosity (to this day I am still not sure which), I opened up the door to see what had happened. I immediately regretted it.

Without going into a prolonged description of the abomination I found myself facing, I will just say that Bob, with gratuitous amounts of projected pudding and semi-digested food that seemed to have landed everywhere but into the toilet, had rendered the bathroom completely unusable. If I was going to escape my predicament with a pristine pair of tighty-whiteys, I was going to need alternative accommodations very quickly.

Within a fraction of a second, I determined that I was faced with two unattractive solutions. The first, and most obvious, was the balcony. The problem there was that if I didn’t clear the front fence I would be soiling the patio and could quite possibly initiate some very bad blood between myself and the complex’s resident guard dog if he had exercised unfortunate judgment in choosing a spot to sleep. If things went wrong, I would be facing teeth marks in my tuckus or, at the very least, a significant increase in our rent. The pressure in my stomach suggested that I had even odds of clearing that fence but in the end I decided not to risk it.

My second option was the kitchen sink. I was sure there were probably consequences there as well but at the point that this thought popped into my head, I had already reached the moment of truth and did not have a whole lot of time to think it through. I stumbled through the dark into the kitchen, dropped my drawers, crawled up onto the counter and prayed to God that the side of the sink I was hovering over was the part with the garbage disposal attached to it.

As I attended to my intestinal health, my third roommate Don, who had not gone on the trip with us, emerged from his room to see what all the commotion was about. The first sight he saw was of me, with my pants around my ankles, sitting over the kitchen sink with a desperate look of determination on my face. His groggy eyes flew wide open, his jaw dropped to the floor and he started hysterically screaming his demands for an explanation. I was too busy to provide him with one so, trying not to break my concentration, I just pointed him towards the direction of the bathroom. His yelling got much louder once he laid eyes on Bob. After that, the girls emerged from the rooms as well to add their two cents about the situation. Normally, I would be hard-pressed to perform that kind of task in front of such an animated audience but the ease with which I wordlessly punctuated my point of view was testament to the fact I had no control over my actions. I was being driven by nature and there was little I could do about it.

Still, there were hard feelings that night. Once my roommate and the girls determined there was nothing they could do to reverse the situation, they gave up, conveyed parting shots of disgust and returned to their rooms without bringing me the roll of toilet paper that I requested. Luckily, there was a newspaper within arm’s reach.

A couple of blocks away, Noni herself reaped the fruit she had sown. Master Chief, either too tired to realize what was transpiring or far too drunk to care, rolled over and passed gas that should not have been trusted. Noni took the full impact of the blast and ended up showering far earlier that morning than she had originally intended to. Master Chief then spent the rest of night in the bathroom as well, but was fairly certain that the bug had run its course by noon that day. This led to his ill-advised decision to accompany his girlfriend to the outdoor market wearing a pair of white cargo shorts.

Round two struck him while they were wandering through the seafood section, appropriately enough. He apparently stopped dead in the middle of a throng of midday shoppers, unable to move for fear losing colon control and did his best to keep everything contained. Unfortunately, he was only delaying the inevitable and once he realized this he embarked upon the only action he really could have. In the middle of the market aisle, deep within midst of dozens of passerby, he lowered his shorts, assumed the position and let the fiber fly.

To hear him tell it, the people surrounding Master Chief at the time glared at him as he dropped his pants like he had gone just completely insane. Despite their disproving stares, no one dared approach or say anything to him. Then, as he finally erupted, their expressions changed from strong disapproval to overwhelming bewilderment as they were overcome with complete surprise. Personally, I was puzzled by this. If I’m in a crowded marketplace and someone in my proximity suddenly rips off their pants and squats in the middle of the street, I would think that I would have a pretty good idea of what was coming next. I’d be removing myself from the line of fire. Apparently, the market-goers in Olongapo are a bit unclear on the concept however and reacted in a sort of “shock and awe” sort of fashion. After pausing for a split second of marveling, they hurriedly split in all directions.

Luckily for Master Chief this episode, though powerful, was very brief. It was just a flash in the can. He did what he had to in just a couple of seconds and was then free to flee with the rest of the natives. The job was not as clean as it was quick however, and the speed with which he was able to run was directly proportional to how far he felt he could safely pull his pants up. Noni eventually came to his aid with a bucket of water liberated from beneath one of the kiosks and tried her hand at spontaneous derriere decontamination, splashing it over Master Chief’s backside while he tried to hobble away from the scene of the crime before the cops got there. Though by no means perfect, the technique worked well enough for Master Chief to return his shorts to sprinting position and escape without a citation for public indecency or an arrest for assault with a posterior projectile.

Though the aesthetically unappealing bellut may have its value as an exotic menu item that is particularly shocking to western palates, I personally am not all that impressed with the elevation it has received after being featured on the National Geographic Channel and in a recent episode of a popular reality show. Sure, it looks absolutely disgusting and possesses a really vile texture but, all things considered, I have tasted worse in a high school cafeteria. If you really want something worth talking about, something that will ruin relationships, place a premium on bathroom space and make short work of your wardrobe, furniture upholstery and reputation as a cultured individual, I would highly recommend bah-glong. Feed six game show contestants a serving of that stuff and then force them to spend the night in a small apartment with only one toilet and you will have an episode of Fear Factor that I would be willing to watch all the way through.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across your site a few days ago thanks to a link from I have enjoyed most of the stuff I have run across - I tend to skip the political stuff, but when I read "The Intrinsic Hazards of Phillipine Cuisine", I don't think that I have laughed harder at anything in print before in my life.
Thanks for sharing,

2:41 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Thanks for showing up Scott! I hope to hear from you again in the near future!

5:10 PM  
Blogger jude said...

I never believe it when people say: "I laughed so hard I was teary-eyed". Not that it doesn't happen to me; I just read/hear it too often to believe it.
However, I think that if someone had left a post here saying that, I would believe them. I didn't cry, but laugh hysterically I did.
On a related note, have you heard of David Sedaris? If you haven't, find out. I think you'll like what he has to say about lisping and performance artists and huge stools at a party.

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey JEP! I got your link from ZUG a few days ago and have killed countless hours of productive work time reading you blogs. This one killed me!! I was sitting in my office reading this through and I couldn't control myself, I'm not sure I have ever laughed so hard! I myself though that I was going to soil myself after falling from my chair and laying under my desk in a fit of laughter and tears. My co workers walked by and looked in to check on me because they though I was having a grand mal seizure!! I'm going to kill more time reading the rest of your blog through. I can relate to alot of your stories and I think that's what makes them more funnyKeep writing this funny stuff!! Chris, Houston,Tx

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i believe you're referring to bagoong (bah-go-ong).

10:17 AM  

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