05 June 2010

In search of heat

Sweet chili sauce & lumpia Shanghai

Any day now, when monsoon season rolls in and brings with it gusty winds, torrential rain, and generally gloomy weather, we just might recall this hellish summer with something akin to wistfulness. But not until then. In the meantime, we sweat — and I more than others.

I perspire easily, copiously. It is not a pretty sight. Heat wave or no, five minutes out of the shower and I’m drenched anew. This is not exaggeration. If only it were. Then I wouldn’t need a towel with me wherever I go. A friend says it makes me look like a jeepney driver.

“An athlete, you mean.”

Chuckle. “And since when did you look like one? You wouldn’t even recognize a sport if he slept with you.”

Speaking of friends, mine have more pressing health concerns than perspiration, however unnatural. Diabetes. Hypertension. Gout. Um, people? I’d rather look like a driver (which is an honorable thing to be, by the way). Sweat’s good, right? As long as it’s not from heat or exertion, i.e., exercise, I’m all for it.

I also sweat when I eat. That I don’t mind. I even anticipate it. So when I told the waiter at Laguna Garden Cafe (Ayala Terraces Cebu) that I wanted the Laguna Express medium-hot, guessing (correctly) that it was a take on Bicol Express, I expected my pores to get a better-than-average work-out. I was wrong. It had no heat. At all. I sent it back, but the kitchen must have misunderstood. It came back hot, all right — as in re-heated.

Heat is relative. That’s why I was extremely forgiving of the cook at Bohol Bee Farm whose halang-halang chicken nearly obliterated my sinuses. I guess that was the middle of the range for him. At our table it was enough to start a minor flood. (I met the cook — a junior — later that day. Like I said, I was forgiving. I did give him a piece of my mind — about the cologne he was wearing. It smelled like algal bloom. In any case, the halang-halang cleared my nasal passageways so good I could smell something rotten all the way to MalacaƱang.)

Bottom line is, if you ask for hot and spicy in the Philippines, you can never be sure how you’re going to get it (except perhaps in Bicol, but I have never been there). We’re pretty definite about what it means for something to be salty or sweet or sour, but mention hot and it’s every man for himself. At least you can be confident than when you ask for hot sauce in a restaurant, you will be presented with a slim plastic bottle that likely hasn’t met a proper pepper in its life, even if it says “extra-hot!” on the label. If you’re really serious, you ask for Tabasco.

Any more serious than that and I’ll have to refer you to my friend Kim. He loves peppers and can’t quite fathom why others don’t. I tell him that not only do some people not like it hot, those who do don’t necessarily like it as hot as he does. “But why?” he then asks, with the same incredulity that a non-Catholic might bring to the concept of the Virgin Birth.

You have to understand: the guy makes his own chili sauce. It’s sweet, like the kind sold in stores — not that you’d take the time to dwell on that detail when your mouth is on fire; it’s that hot. Even if you don’t like it, you have to at least admit that it’s not lacking in integrity. Tons of peppers died for that sauce, man. You have got to respect that.

I like it, by the way. Like, kind of. If I’m at all serious about anything, it’s spontaneous combustion. So I make mine with a mere quarter-cup of bird’s-eye chilies and an equal amount of garlic, ground into a rough paste and stirred into five cups of vinegar with two cups of sugar, plus salt to taste. If that sounds like a lot of sauce, not to worry. It keeps well, even without refrigeration. Kim won’t be impressed, but I’m not breaking a sweat over that.

UPDATE (7.6.10): PAGASA says the rainy season is finally here. Enjoy the sun while you can.

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