Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Baby Food And Other Stinkers

ALTHOUGH THERE ARE SCORES of Asian grocery stores in Queens, one has entrenched itself more deeply in the hearts, and stomachs, of Filipinos in New York. Phil-Am Food Mart, in the heart of Little Manila in Woodside (on the 69th Street station of the 7 train), is owned by hard-working Batanguenos who may well be millionaires now, with the kind of customer traffic they get especially on holidays and weekends. The contents of the store in themselves are not that rare or special: the usual food products like Pampanga's Best tocinos and Mama Sita's flavor mixes, mass-produced for the homesick tongues of Filipino expatriates. But it has a small fresh produce section that carries ingredients for pinakbet, and a cooked food section that offers fried milkfish, dried squid, goby (biya), herring (tunsoy) and other apartment stinkers packed in little aluminum foil boxes. Fastidious Pinoys buy these salty treats even though they are overpriced to satisfy a craving without stinking up one's living space or offending their next door neighbor in the building when they fry these stinkers. Another important aspect of the store is the makeshift bulletin board by its entrance, where enterprising Filipino subletters advertise cheap rooms for rent (usually carved out of apartment spaces using portable dividers, a la Sampaloc, Manila) to jobless newly arrived kabayans, who know nothing of New York city codes and are unlikely to report building violations to 311. This is one of the reasons why some people come here, then shop later. We got the tenant of our attic room through its posting board.

Other than that, the store is special to our family because it is the only place in Queens where we can find frozen baby mackerel tuna (tulingan), not those huge mercury-laden behemoths that sushi chefs hunt at Top Line or Fulton Fish Market, for our Mindoro soul food tinigang. These babies are tender and sweet-tasting; they probably went to the same school (pardon the pun) as the ones they sell in Pinamalayan wet market. One could imagine the tropical sun coming back to life in their eyes after they have been defrosted. Even the sinking of passenger ferry Princess of the Stars did not dampen our appetite for tinigang like it did to our relatives in the Philippines, because we thought these babies were safely asleep in a freezer somewhere in a New Jersey port when the tragedy happened.

Anyway, tinigang is one of the easiest and earliest dishes I learned to cook; I got the technique (or the lack of it) from my grandfather. I use a sharp knife to cut a lengthwise slit on both sides of each fish, press them with the palm of my hand on a chopping board until they are as flat (and nearly round) as a tortilla with a bony smile, sprinkle them with salt and pepper, and stack them in lattice pattern in a wide-bottomed pot. (We bought a cast iron paella pot made in Colombia for this purpose.) I throw in a piece of bacon and a handful of crushed garlic, add water and vinegar (Heinz will do, but Datu Puti is better) and bring it to a boil. Once it simmers, I am instantly transported to the tropics, but my wife cries "Foul!" and scurries all over the house to shut bedroom doors and protect our wardrobe from the clinging, acidic fish smell. Perfect tinigang takes at least an hour to cook; the water has to evaporate almost completely ("tigang" means "dry" in Tagalog), the bones have to be edibly soft, and the fat of the bacon has to incorporate with the sauce for the best patis, so she has to endure the atmosphere for a while. (I usually cook tinigang, fry tunsoy or saute shrimp paste over a hot plate in the garage, but it has become quite a challenge to stay outside because the temperature has dropped to winter levels even though it is still autumn officially.) Once dinner is served, however, usually with some vegetable cooked in coconut milk and freshly steamed Thai jasmine rice, everybody is happy and all stink is forgiven.

Phil-Am Food Mart, 40-03 70th Street, Woodside, Queens, New York 11377, (718) 899-1797, no parking

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