I wonder if Carlo at my latest supper was thinking of the adage “one man’s meat is another’s poison” when he chose the theme of this month’s Is My Blog Burning? What a way to celebrate the 12th instalment and 1st anniversary of Alberto’s original idea! Something taboo or disgusting – in our part of the world, what could that be short of cannibalism? I didn’t want to argue, or be legalistic around the rules yet I also didn’t want to break the Philippine Animal Welfare law.

It took me a long time to finally decide on this month’s entry. For a while I thought of skipping it but my friend Catsudon, who is the genie of my blogs, admonished me not to chicken out. So, back to the rules. I’ll just pick bits and pieces from Carlo’s stipulations since taken as a whole, they seem to eliminate everything from this side of the world. And because I work on my food entries from Pampanga, a province known for many exotic delicacies even for Philippine standards, close to nothing qualifies as taboo or forbidden.

But as for sharing our unusual food and recording the reactions of those who try it, I had a lot of pictures! I found one taken in December and shows May-May, a four-year old who ate tâgiló like oatmeal where others cringe. However, she wasn’t a “willing victim” but practically begged to have a taste. Does that qualify? Perhaps I should then go back through time, not limited with this IMBB’s timeframe.

So that picture from my electronic treasure chest decided the entry. Tâgiló it is and I can even do a little “scientific” work on it. I have many memories associated with this victual. Sometime back, one of my cousins, who was in her teens that time, cried over an empty bowl because she fell asleep before lunchtime and woke up to find our other cousins finished all the tâgiló our grandmother prepared. Another cousin would also hanker for it each time she comes to the house. Those who marry into the family, and who did not grow up eating this seem to be more “addicted” to it than we are. Even friends who eat with us seem to have developed an intense liking for it that they now and then bring empty bottles to be filled.

Now, what is this again? Let’s just say it may be the distant cousin of sushi. How now?

I didn’t realise this until some years back, a very dear friend who spent time studying the history and art of sushi-making told me the lore behind it. He thought he was just making conversation but he had no idea how it unlocked something I have always thought about. According to him (and a website on The Evolution of Sushi), sushi started out in Southeast Asia as a means to preserve fish with rice, with the rice thrown away later. The practice moved northward to China and Japan and evolved to its current form.

In Southeast Asia however, some of this original practice remained, like kassam in Borneo. Now, my friend is currently incommunicado so I can’t ask what exactly is kassam and I can’t find any sources but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is something very similar to tâgiló.

As it has evolved, this is a Capampangan or Central Luzon delicacy of fermented rice with shrimps or fish. Since our recipes are not coded, we do not have a standard for measurements and ingredients. Even the names vary between places. In our town, it refers to the paste of rice and shrimps while in others, tâgiló would refer to fermented rice and fish (usually bulig, dalag in Filipino and mudfish in English) while that with shrimps is called balo-balo. Tagalog provinces know it by the name buroburong hipon (shrimps).

Not all Capampangans eat this though. I have heard some are disgusted by just the thought of eating “rotten rice” while others cannot take the smell alone. Outside of the province, only gourmets are said to eat it. What then is so special or disgusting about this sauce? Perhaps the answer lies in how it comes to be.

We almost always use rice which is still hot from the stove and then lightly salted. Rock salt is most preferable. The shrimps to be used are also lightly salted. Salt is the most critical element. It prevents the growth of organisms that may otherwise turn the delicacy into rotten rice.

Notice how the shrimps are turning red from the heat of the rice. When rice ferments, the acid preserves the shrimps which would otherwise go bad if left in room temperature for days. If I had decided on this entry earlier, I could have done the necessary lab work to isolate which particular microbes do the job (I’m a nerd and I know it!). Fortunately, blog friend Ruth, who just happens to work on assays for breakfast, helped sort out my thoughts. Note to self: no more cramming for future IMBB events.

Tâgiló requires the use of live freshwater shrimps, the smaller the better since these have a softer shell. Frozen or dead shrimps simply would not do. They will impart a mild bitterness to the dish. My aunt in Madrid once attempted to use frozen saltwater shrimps, to disastrous results according to her. Another aunt in Ontario had the same complaint. I’ve never attempted this in the city either.

After thoroughly mixing the rice with the shrimps, it is then ready for the saksak or to be tightly packed into jars. The pressure forces out the air which is also key to proper fermentation. If using larger shrimps or fish, rice and shrimps/fish are layered alternately. Traditionally, clay jars were used but since we agree that there is a higher concentration of ambient pollutants nowadays, we now utilise glass jars or food-grade PET plastic containers which can be sealed tightly. The mixture is then stored to ferment. The duration varies according to weather conditions. With hot weather, full fermentation takes 3 days while with cold temperature, 4-5 days will do. On the second day of fermentation, the rice should start to macerate. When the jars are opened at the end of the fermentation period, one will see the formation of a cheesy substance resembling yogurt which has a strong but clean smell as against the greenish-grey-blue colonies of spoilt food.

Many commercial sellers of tâgiló often shortcut the lengthy process by adding vinegar to the rice, much like sushi, and this does not sit well with connoisseurs

It is then cooked in huge amounts of fried garlic, adding water, boiled once, twice, thrice, four times until the proper pasty consistency is achieved and any harmful bacteria arrested. The bulk of the effort is in the cooking. The mixture needs to be constantly stirred since rice burns easily. As a nine-year old, when I was first entrusted with the task, I made the mistake of following the rule of no stirring until the pot boils after adding water. Apparently I left it to boil too long because it got burnt. My grandmother never let me off the hook, and was scolded for days. When we cook tâgiló now, my mom never fails to tease me and say watch and stir vigilantly. How can I forget?

In other towns, aside from garlic, the fermented mixture is cooked with onions, ginger and tomatoes. For us, this masks the natural flavour of the rice and shrimps which garlic enhances, if used alone. I also tasted a variation which was cooked in butter. Ugh, Although it didn’t really taste disagreeable, the natural flavour was overpowered.

My grandmother cooked only small amounts of the victual, but now it seems that with more family and friends who long for tâgiló, we have to cook it in large amounts, every single time.

How does it taste? It is slightly sour, delicately salty and unmistakably garlic-flavoured with an underlying taste of shrimp. How is it supposed to be eaten? Definitely not like how May-May eats it although some of my obsessed cousins have used it as sandwich filling. The proper way of eating it is with fresh mustard leaves, steamed vegetables and broiled fish. And how do the first-time eaters like it?

The proof of the paste is in the taste, Err… :hungry:

And after that long-winded explanation, I wonder if tâgiló still qualifies as disgusting.

Update: Now that I come to think about it, I did follow the rules! In the process of preparing this entry, I did taste some tâgiló that wasn’t cooked at home. Normally, I wouldn’t because I’m not sure about the hygiene of its preparation. And how did I like the other samples? No comparison.

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