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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, August 05, 2004

entry arrow3:18 PM | Chicken Joy

An estimated 1,800 chickens -- perhaps even more than that -- get the axe every single day in restaurants all over poultry-hungry Dumaguete. In this educated guess, no one's even including the chicken meat anyone can purchase from our public market stalls, or from the refrigerated confines of the city's supermarkets. One thousand eight hundred, and counting... pre-packaged, or organic, or straight from someone's local backyard. If you really think about it, that's an awful lot of chicken.

Because when anyone must come up with the essential Dumagueteno, chicken meat is way up there -- together with the observation of our local habit of walking too slow, like leisurely turtles, like promenading under a full moon -- in defining who we are.

The other day, meeting up with a friend from Manila who was here for a brief visit "to get away from the exasperating hustle and bustle of big city life," he asked me: "Now, where can we have a good lunch for today?" and then, with a certain emphasis bordering on over-saturation: "And I don't mean another dish of chicken."

I pretended not to know what he was implying, but I knew what he was talking about. We want to Lab-as instead, to sample their fare of bangus. But truth be told, this is a city in love with chicken meat. Every corner of Dumaguete has some small shrine disguised as eating places dedicated to the art of chicken-meat mastication. Admit it: no visits by far-flung friends can end without the mandatory trek to the biggest temple of them all: Jo's Chicken Inato. Its grilled chicken -- a choice of pecho or pa-a immersed overnight in some secret ingredients -- has become very much a part of Dumaguete tradition. Jo's delectable white meat, sweetish to the taste, and smelling always of some grilled heaven, is part of our blood. It is the first thing we miss of home, together with the Taster's Delight cheeseburger. I still have old high school classmates, now based all over the world, who's first query with regards home food always makes reference to both Jo's and Taster's Delight.

No one can tell why this is so. Pork or beef or fish are fine -- but chicken? Chicken defines our very taste buds. So much so that last summer, and even the other month, it was possible to go to any restaurant in the city and get told by an apologizing waiter that there would be no chicken dish available. "The city has run out of chicken," he would say.

That's what happened -- twice -- when Mark and I were in Chin Loong. "How can any city run out of chicken?" Mark asked, exasperated, because he was already dreaming of chicken dripping with the sweet and sour combination only Chin Loong could make. The waiter mumbled some more apology, and recommended the sweet and sour squid.

I remember now that it was also with some craziness when Panda -- that ice cream shop over at Harold's Mansion in Tubod -- announced its shortage of chicken. I panicked. Not a lot of people know this but Panda Haus serves more than ice cream. One of my favorites from its menu is steamed rice chicken, which is not exactly the regular dimsum variety we all know. The plus side of this dish, aside from the fact that it is addicting, is the fact that all of Panda's chicken are "organic chicken," which, I am told, makes the whole lot quite healthy to eat. And most days, living the bachelor's life always on the go, I subsist on this dish. I would call up 225-9644, place my order, and ten minutes later, I would munch the peppered combination of rice and chicken meat in the comforts of my own pad. So when the attendants told me one day that they had run out of organic chicken, I immediately texted Angeline Dy, one of the owners, to beg.

She laughed. "We don't grow organic chicken from trees and pluck them just like that!"

"Well, then," I said, "better hatch them fast."

I knew then what I think I have always known. You can deprive a DumagueteƱo of chocolate and cake and lechon and all other delicacies in the world. But just give me my chicken meat. It is the definitive meat. Isn't it any wonder that when people must describe some exotic meat dish -- say snake, or kangaroo -- they always say, "Tastes just like chicken"? It is, now I know, the universal paragon of the tastefully divine.

Every Sunday, after church in Bread of Life, we go to City Burger. We do not mind the strange angles of this restaurant along Real Street, an open-air space that resembles the ruins of a gutted house (it is, in fact, the ruins of a gutted building). We do not even mind the apparent misnaming of the place (who eats burger in City Burger?). We all come for one thing: its grilled chicken quite unlike its delicious cousin over at Jo's. How? The extra-sweetish taste of the sauce it drips with.

I always feel guilty after eating in City Burger, but it is a guilt I can live with. The same guilt that possesses me whenever I cross the street from my office in Silliman University to the stone's throw distance of Nena's Kamalig. People have made distinctions about the grilling of chicken. There is supposed to be the Dumaguete-style (Jo's and City Burger's), and there is the Bacolod-style. We first imported the latter a few years back with the coming of Nena's Kamalig, which serves liempo and chicken and a host of other grilled meat in a distinctive taste that is a combination of burnt liver and catsup. The mixture is surprisingly delicious -- but it is never complete without the final touch: that sauce on your table that looks like reddish moonshine. It is chicken oil drippings. "Egad, cholesterol. That's a heart attack waiting to happen!" a health-conscious friend once warned me.

"Honey," I said, "it's a risk anyone's willing to take."

I won't risk anything, though, for Ati-Atihan, whose chicken is quite passable -- but there's nothing's new about it. Not even the amakan interiors (and faucets built from banga), which seems to be the proscribed material design for any chicken place in Dumaguete and elsewhere. And Dumaguete Fried Chicken? Mark told me once they made the best chili chicken wings. I've been missing the spicy chicken wings from defunct Giacomino's. And so we went one evening to DFC, got horrid service, and were eventually given a miniscule serving of the dish incompatible with its steep price. Plus an order of soggy pizza. Of the chicken: an uninspired piece of fried meat dipped in chili sauce. We left our review of the food on their paper napkin, lettered with their catsup: "Wala'y lami."

I'd rather go chicken-hopping to the various lechon manok stalls all over the place, especially Manok ni San Pedro, and then Golden Roy's -- the original lechon manok place, its generous chicken still amazingly spicy to the smell and to the taste.

Eventually, though, we all still go to Jo's for our chicken. A few years ago, when my Dutch friend Martin Slot came into town, Jo's became the first in our list of places to go and explore local delicacies. This was before the restaurant became the swanky place it is now. (The old Jo's was a crowded affair of amakan darkened with soot and the grime of years.) When we finally had our orders, I told him that the only way to go about eating chicken inato is through bare hands straight to mouth. "No spoons and forks here. Kamayan is the way to go about it," I told him. And we did -- me and this flabbergasted foreigner who must have thought this society strange, people eating with bare hands. But it didn't really matter. Because, really, this was the only way to go about it: chicken touching skin, going straight to mouth. Such ritual has become the mark of our familiars. It is our bare, intimate homage to the food that defines us all.

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