26 January 2009

Quite General Pinoy Fermentation Post

Basi, a good remedy for boredom.

Recently I've taken to sipping Ilocano basi in my idle moments-- during traffic jams, when I wake in the morning, when I'm walking in the garden or attempting to sun myself in this freak weather. The sugarcane wine tastes beery and similar (save for said beeriness) to the fermented lactobacilli and enzyme drinks that were the trendy supplement-of-choice by the health-conscious a few years back. It's quite good cold.

Pails filled with fermented sea animals in Ilocos.

This got me going back to what I've been thinking a lot about the past year-- fermented food and unappreciated place in the Filipino diet. Alcoholic beverages, vinegars, fish and shrimp pastes, pickled fruit and vegetables... the list goes on. They're made to preserve liquids, meats, produce beyond harvest. They add vitamins, amino acids, and other beneficial etceteras to food. They make interesting tastes and textures.

Most literature I've read on Philippine eating of yore has stated an abundance in our diet of cultured foodstuffs, with reactions from foreigners ranging from pleased to neutral to downright disgusted. Maybe in the coming weeks I'll post some of the funnier ones.

A peek inside.

Since most recent colonization, we ourselves have been overtaken by some kind of bleach-crazed mommy aversion towards actually seeing process of fermentation ("If you see patis vats, you'll cry and feel like puking!" or "Do you know that some people die from eating homemade bagoong, only buy the Mama Cita one or something."). This highlights our brute-force approach to cleanliness and living healthy: Obliterate all microorganisms! If they say they are beneficial they are lying! Unleash the hounds of Domex!

Some shrimp paste made by me and my partner in all crimes, several months in fermentation according to a found old recipe. I don't eat meat or seafood, but I make the stuff anyway.

But you never see Filipinos ranting against the grossness of fermenting cheese-- unless it involves maggots, then people view them with a sort of fascination for the unique culture (not primitive, ah). Unless they are paranoid-Americanized, Filipinos view small European farmers working with unpasteurized milk as rockstars.

Rethinking it, the "rotten fish" and whatnot that we eat are our versions of Western "rotten milk" or cheese (as per the quip by Abe Cruz). But I know several people who can identify twenty million hundred varietals of some obscure wine grape. On the other hand, there are probably two people alive who can tell whether sugarcane for this-and-that basi is wild, blackish, or good in a very general sense. And you-- can you name subtle variations in cheeses, but hold all bagoong to be the same damn thing, only this more pink than that, or that one made of some other fish, of which you've forgotten the name? Exactly.

Unfortunately, many factors have stopped us from exploring the details of cultured food, improving on the processes, creating unique formulations. While Frogs are reporting that wine keeps heart disease at bay, and Koreans tell us that kimchi prevents bird flu, we know little about the nuances of our rich fermented food history. Although we sometimes use an element or two with much fanfare and tokenism. Better than nothing!

God no, this is not a nationalistic rant. It's a prod for people to explore, and it's a wrench in asking you to redefine what being a "foodie" means to you. Do you just regularly swallow what mainstream media regurgiated? Go ask your lolas about their buro recipes. Save them from oblivion! And eat them to, all the time, as sides. Make your life more interesting.

Sandy Katz with a little display of fermented foodstuffs, he is dressed to convince you that fermentation is realm of the Everyman.

To further convince you, I bring you a last bit from author Sandor Katz, "fermentation fetishist", no doubt a dreamboy of sauerkraut-making chicks the world over, inviting you to join him " on this effervescent path, well trodden for thousands of years yet largely forgotten in our time and place, bypassed by the superhighway of industrial food production."

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