Magic, and Budbod

I drifted in and out of sleep in the shuttle on our way to Angono. I didn’t notice the traffic that might have clogged the streets, nor the landmarks that would help me find my way later on.

We had just come from a hearty meal at a German restaurant. You would think that a pause would be in order. That’s what normal people do. We were impulsive that day.

I groggily stepped out of the shuttle with Yedy and Eugene. I had to regain my bearings for a minute to realize that we alighted at the entrance of a quaint subdivision called Aurora. There weren’t a lot of people on the streets. A guy with his cigarette, a mother with her baby, and a few kids. Walking a good two blocks to our destination was uneventful. Was the journey going to be anticlimactic?

The street we walked into wasn’t a beehive but you could tell it has its own flurry of activity. Then the tarpaulin I saw on Yedy’s instagram was right before my eyes and it confirmed our destination. Welcome to Dency’s. We were in Budbod country.
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What was once a quaint space (a small carinderia with monobloc chairs) is now a larger house (painted yellow!), with an even larger, tiled space that could fit around fifteen to twenty people. It is quite possibly the house that budbod built.
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Budbod is what you call the rice dish that’s been topped/sprinkled (binudbod) with meat, tomatoes, spring onions, sometimes egg, sometimes anything goes. It’s a noun and a verb. A simple rice meal, basically. And the way Yedy and Euge (both of them hail from the surrounding area) gush about it shows it’s rice that tugs a few heartstrings. They grew up eating the stuff. And they took it upon themselves to introduce this small town boy to a little piece of their shared history.

This wasn’t my first encounter with budbod though. My co-intern at the restaurant is from Rizal and one time she brought individually portioned styro packs of budbod and it had beef, lumpia, tomatoes and chives. It’s a family recipe, and I’m not sure how it compares to what we were going to have.

I grew and grew up eating rice with no other name. In their neck of the woods this meal is an icon. But why is it such a big deal? Why the fuss?

“Sago’t gulaman”, Yedy tells the jolly server. It’s the preamble before the main event. The cleanse before the deluge.
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Our order arrives in plastic bowls with a lid on, reminiscent of how Chowking (a fast food chain I unabashedly favor) serves their rice.
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I take the lid off mine and a hint of adobo wafts out. The chopped beef must have been braised in soy sauce and vinegar before it was fried. Fresh tomatoes, chopped spring onions and a smidgen of scrambled egg accompany the meat. It’s a disproportionate ratio – there is definitely more rice. And the rice has been fried and taken on a color that suggests a dash of soy sauce was added. It’s nothing fancy.
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There is no ritual. After staring at my bowl hungrily in between taking photographs, I grabbed my utensils and took a heaping spoonful of rice, beef and egg (I’m not a fan of eating fresh tomatoes with rice so I set it aside.).

I tasted tender beef, with a gentle acidity and more pronounced salinity. In my gut there’s more to it than just soy sauce and vinegar. A little bit of sugar, or Knorr seasoning even? I may be wrong. The rice was seasoned and made the perfect partner.
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There are no bells and whistles. It’s not ingenuous. But it hits the spot for sure.

“Is this it?”, I caught myself asking that question more than once. I admit my enthusiasm wasn’t as overflowing as theirs.

I asked the server for a side order of pork cooked the same way as the beef. At that time I preferred the pork over the beef. Also, a sunny egg.
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It was almost sundown when we were done polishing off our bowls. I was filled to the brim but had this nagging feeling that there has to be something more than what I ate. Rationalizing, maybe the history they share with budbod magnified its appeal. Maybe that was something I couldn’t fully understand. Food and memories, time and space, was that it? Or maybe I should just shut up and just eat.

It was a long ride back home. I drifted in and out of sleep again.

And then there it was. It felt like waves, gently hitting and then receding from the shore before a big one comes crashing down. Or maybe the unnecessary fullness ebbed and I was just hungry all over again.

I craved for it. I craved for budbod like it was nobody’s business. The beef, pork, egg and rice. I wanted to stuff my face all over again.

The lag was very unusual (and funny in a cosmic sort of way). But it doesn’t matter anymore because I fully understand what Yedy and Eugene were talking about. It may have taken me a few hours to get it but I did. What happened? What sorcery is this?

It doesn’t really matter all that much anymore. Rationalizations, excuses, delays, all of it is miniscule. All that matters is that bowl of rice is calling out to me. It’s been more than a week since we went to Angono and writing this made me crave for it all over again.

If my feet and appetite would lead me back to that table again so I could make amends with that bowl of rice so delicious, I’d say every thing is right in the world. Even just for a moment.

Budbod is deceptively simple and unassuming, that much is true. Isn’t the best food of our visceral childhood memories always the simplest?
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Pancit Palabok

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I did not grow up eating palabok. Pancit bihon or sotanghon would usually be part of our party staple, not palabok. In fact, I could consider palabok an incredibly unorthodox addition to a buffet spread.

It was in college that my appreciation for palabok really grew. Tucked away at the back of the university where I used to study at, there’s this little resto called Flavourite. It’s practically an institution here in Zamboanga, with branches around town. It’s known for its reasonably priced home cooked dishes, the burgers and of course, the palabok. I think it would be an understatement when I say that their palabok is delicious. In fact, if somebody would ask me what a great palabok is supposed to taste like, I would describe it along the lines of Flavourite’s version.
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“Miki, pork”, is my usual order. Palabok noodles can either use miki, (round or flat egg noodles), or bihon (thin strands of rice noodles). I enjoy eating it with miki. And since I have no aversion to pork, I don’t see any reason it shouldn’t be pork.
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The thick, gravy-like sauce is curiously orange. Before I read about the process of making it, I’ve always wondered what it’s made of. Of course, all of that curiosity vanishes with the first slurp. The taste is peculiar as well. It’s slightly salty, more than anything else. But it still lays the perfect stage to showcase the hotchpotch of toppings.
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I understand that toppings are probably as diverse as the regions of the Philippines, from all-meat, to seafood, but like I said, Flavourite is my benchmark (So if you want to point me to a plate of palabok that rocked your world, drop me a line!) The palabok is topped with little tofu cubes, chicharon (pork crackling), mashed adobo and if I’m not mistaken, pork floss.

Flavourite is so old-school they don’t have a website, not even a facebook page. It makes sense; through the years it has sustained itself well without any gimmicks. So to understand my enthusiasm, if and when you’re in our little city of Zamboanga, please, check it out.
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In the meantime, here’s my take on their palabok – with a few topping modifications. The real work is in making the sauce; the rest of the toppings can just be put together at the last-minute. But I’d like to think it was so good that after a few hours the big pot of sauce was polished clean, and the noodles long gone.

And I like it so much I don’t mind it with calamansi, my archenemy. Palabok does that to you.
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Pancit Palabok (serves 6 – 8)

Some miki noodles have been pre-salted already, so exercise caution when seasoning the sauce, tasting as you go along.

2 500-gram packs miki (egg noodles; the ones that I used were bundled but already soft and ready to use, with a shelf-life of only 3 days)

Sauce:

  • At least 8 – 10 medium-sized prawns, head and shell intact, but with barbs (the rostrum) and whiskers snipped
  • 3 – 4 cups water to cook the prawns
  • 1 30-gram pack annatto/atsuete seeds
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil

Seasoning:

  • 2 tablespoons patis/fish sauce, or more to taste
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 pork broth cubes, or more to taste
  • Cornstarch slurry: 6 – 8 tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 cup warm water

Toppings:

  • ¼ kilo pork belly, sliced into small cubes
  • Pork chicharon, crumbled
  • Spring onions, cleaned and sliced thinly
  • Napa cabbage/Chinese pechay, cleaned and sliced into strips
  • 5 – 8 hard-boiled eggs, sliced in half
  1. Over medium heat, boil prawns in a pot with the water. When thoroughly orange all over, turn off the heat.
  2. Using a slotted spoon, remove the prawns and place in a bowl. Allow to cool. Reserve the water for use later.
  3. Meanwhile, in a pan, add the pork with enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper. Allow the water to evaporate and the pork’s fat to render. Sauté the pork in its own fat until lightly toasted.
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  4. Peel the prawns and remove the heads. Place all the prawn heads in a mortar and using the pestle (the heavy bat shaped object), pound the prawn heads until juices have been released and the mixture looks “pulpy”.
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  5. Place everything in the pot of water that was used to boil the prawns and mix everything together.
  6. In a small pot, make the atsuete oil by heating the vegetable oil over medium heat and adding the atsuete seeds. Toast until fragrant and the oil takes on a shade of dark orange.
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  7. Add the oil to the shrimp water, together with the seeds. Mix everything together and let the color bleed into the soup, leave for 3 – 5 minutes. You will want a slightly dark yellow-orange colored liquid.
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  8. Run the mixture through a sieve and into a slightly larger pot.  Heat the pot over medium heat. Add around 1 – 2 more cups water. Season with salt and pepper. Add the broth cubes and the fish sauce, starting with 2 cubes and 2 tablespoons, respectively. Add more if desired.
  9. When it starts to simmer, add the cornstarch slurry. Allow to boil, stirring frequently. Adjust taste and consistency to your liking. I personally want a liquid that’s thick and gravy-like, which may need more of the slurry, or not – it’s your call.
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  10. Place the miki noodles in a bowl of hot water to wash and soften it. Drain.
  11. Put everything together: In a plate, place a generous mound of noodles. Ladle an equally generous amount of sauce. Add the toppings (toasted pork belly, sliced spring onions and Napa cabbage, shrimps, hard-boiled egg) and sprinkle with the crumbled chicharon. Serve with calamansi on the side. Enjoy!