Albert Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge,” which is a credo that I live by. But I also imagine that without my hunger to gain knowledge, I wouldn’t experience things in life that allow me to have a vast imagination. And sometimes that hunger for knowledge leads me down an unknown path to getting my hands dirty.
Or in this case, my feet.
While traveling through the countries in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, you come across many different cultures, customs and cuisines. The common thread is the overwhelming love of food and love for stinky fermented fish products like shrimp paste. Bagoong in the Philippines, lengkare in Indonesia and belacan in Malaysia are mostly by-products from the production of fish sauce, which can be traced all the way back to ancient Roman times when “garum” was more common in cooking than ordinary salt. The frugality of making two separate products from one method is right up my alley. (Nothing excites me more than producing something out of nothing.)
As I was sitting in Manila recently, eating sliced green mango with bagoon, it occurred to me that I had no idea how shrimp paste is made. So I picked up the phone, made a few calls, cashed in on some favors and found myself on a plane ride, then a jeepney trek and finally a scary stroll through an off-the-grid squatters village on the island of Negros Occidental. I was on my way to finding out more than I ever needed to know about shrimp paste.
As I was walking down the narrow path through the tent village, the locals were coming out in droves as if Justin Bieber had arrived. Through a translator I soon learned that the villagers had never seen the likes of me, except for the group of Mormons that came through a few years ago for a very different reason. The locals were worried that I was from the government and I was there to shut down their bagoon production — which is quite laughable on my end given that most government officials that I know look nothing like me and would have no interest in trekking through a third world country to halt the production of shrimp paste.
The first step in making bagoon is catching the baby shrimp by net. The shrimp are roughly the size of long-grain rice. Two members of the village walk out into the ocean with long nets and drag them through the water collecting the miniature shrimp. Then the nets are laid out on rickety bamboo tables and the sorting begins by removing other fish and debris. The shrimp are left to sun dry for a few hours before they are scooped into wide buckets for the next step of the production, which is when things get interesting.
A chiseled young villager with a striking resemblance to Manny Pacquiao appears with a cigarette in one hand and a small bucket of water in another. After removing his flip-flops and splashing a little bit of water on his feet, he looks to me and, without saying a word, declares his feet clean and jumps into the bucket of shrimp and starts moving like he is trying to win the Dance Dance Revolution world championships.
After 10 minutes of smashing the shrimp, his helper — who is simultaneously breastfeeding her naked baby — throws in sea salt from a used motor oil container. This is a crucial step in the recipe that reads something like three motor oil containers of salt per bucket of shrimp. The only variable is the amount of sweat that lands in the bucket from our tap dancing hero.
The foot-smashed shrimp are then portioned in little baggies and left to ferment. I can only assume the fermentation process is somewhat speedy given the conditions of hygiene and toe jam. The baggies are then sold off and cooked according to family recipes, and incorporated into countless number of dishes.
After seeing the bagoon made I was intrigued and inspired. I purchased a few baggies and continued my journey a few hours south from Bacolod City to the beach town of Sipalay. Upon arrival and settling in, I asked a local to gather a few green coconuts so I could prepare a snack. As he scaled the coconut tree barefoot with a knife dangling from a rope attached to his waist, I started gathering the other ingredients. I sautéed the shrimp paste with garlic, hot peppers, calamansi and native coconut vinegar and made an ad hoc vinaigrette. We cracked the coconuts and scooped out the jelly like young flesh and dressed the meat with the vinaigrette, diced mango and shaved red onion. The result was new, inventive and rooted in traditional flavors.
Needless to say, this is not a product that is readily available on your grocery store shelf, but it is a product that exemplifies the food of southern Asia. I never would have imagined that in this day and age shrimp paste was produced in this manner, but now I have the knowledge and understanding that some of the finest things in life are still produced by hand. Or, shall I say, feet.
Appleman shares some of the places he ate while visiting the Philippines:
Abe Restaurant for green mango with bagoon. Crispy Pata Bistro XO for steamed rice cakes with crab fat butter and chicken adobo. Peninsula Hotel room service for arroz caldo.
Chicken House for grilled chicken butts and garlic rice. Kubo Sa Lawn for sizzling sisig. Sharyns Kansi House serves a beef shank and bone marrow soup baduan (sour fruit) made over charcoal, and they also serve a re-fried version. Entings for whole-roasted lechon and kinilaw (ceviche).
Kalanan Sa Ki Lid Dalan serves the same three items: grilled local fish, pork chop and calamari. Milas serves tortang tolang (stuffed eggplant) and buko pie.
Nate Appleman is a member of the Chipotle Culinary Team and is a recipient of James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award, the Food & Wine Best New Chef recognition as well as two prestigious book awards from the International Association of Culinary Professionals: Book of the Year and First Book: The Julia Child Award for his cookbook A16 Food + Wine. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram