When you pulverize shrimp, put it in salty water, and store it in an earthen jar, a variety of bacteria begin breaking the starches down into sugars and converting the sugars into lactate. The process is commonly called fermentation—though most people’s favorite kind of fermentation is carried out by yeast rather than bacteria. Other bacteria break down the proteins into simple amino acids. Eventually, the jar contains a substance that very little resembles the original shrimp. In the Philippines, they call it bagoong.
Tonight at a Filipino restaurant known for its Kapampangan cuisine, I ordered kare-kare, a Kapampangan dish made with peanut sauce, which is supposed to be similar to Indonesian satay. It looked magnificent when it came to my table, a deep bowl filled with thick peanut sauce, slices of eggplant, and hunks of ox tail. I was just about to begin eating when the waitress exclaimed.
“Oh, wait! I forgot your shrimp paste.”
I dutifully waited. Another waitress had just finished setting up a table for a “boodle fight.” She had first covered it completely with banana leaves. Then she had spread rice over the banana leaves. Finally she had begun laying various edibles out on the rice. When I asked her to explain it to me, she said encouragingly, “anyone can try it. Actually, mostly foreigners do it.” Then she corrected herself: “non-Filipinos.” I am still trying to learn why it is called a fight.
Finally, my waitress brought a little bowl filled with dark amber matter. “You’re all set,” she said brightly.
Bagoong communicates with primitive parts of the brain before the taste buds have a chance to taste. The thought, “I have just eaten something rotten and may vomit” crossed my mind before I was aware of any flavor at all. However, when I realized that I was not, in fact, going to vomit, the flavors pounded a variety of taste buds that I had not known existed. There were high, rattling notes reminding me vaguely of horseradish, and there were low, unctuous notes, reminding me of castor oil.
I later asked the waitress about the bagoong. “You can buy it at the market, but it won’t be like the Filipino bagoong.”
But in fact, the practice of pulverizing shrimp and fish and fermenting them to make a sauce is found throughout Southeast Asia, including Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Thais call it kapi; Malays, belachan; and Indonesians, terasi. It may have originated in 8th century Thailand, and over the centuries it has repelled a great number of visitors to Southeast Asia. It seems very much to be an acquired taste.
Fortunately I tried the kare-kare unflavored with fermented shrimp before the shrimp overwhelmed my senses. The peanut sauce was excellent. It was not quite as rich as the satay at Upi Jaya—but perhaps this was more appropriate for an ox tail soup. The ox tail was very soft, and the meat fell off the bone with a nudge. It was mild, much less spicy than its Indonesian cousin.
Wall art at Kabayan
The Kapampangan people live mostly in the southern part of Luzon. Their language is distinct from Tagalog, although it is another Austronesian language. The language once had its own script, Kulitan, and was spoken in the powerful kingdom Tondo. Before their defeat by the Spanish, the Kapampangan people were mostly Hindu or Buddhist, and traded with India and China. Their culture appears, however, to have been deeply imprinted by Spanish and Mexican influence (as the Philippines were directly administered from Mexico). You can hear it in some of their music. Supposedly much of their cuisine was similarly influenced by the Spanish and Mexicans, but kare-kare strikes me as purely Southeast Asian.
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