Tuesday, 31 January 2012

“Killing me softly chicken” and Dog for dinner

(Warning: this may not be everyone’s taste) 

When in a place that is proud of their tradition, a few oddities are bound to be found. This is the best way I can put it. Sagada along with its Animist ways has a few culinary ceremonies that they hold on to, which would throw WWF and Greenpeace up in arms. It has to be remembered that this is tradition, which dates back for centauries, and something that the Sagadan people are proud of. Gohan and his sister invited us for dinner at Bana’s Café and cooked us some local delicacies, including….

Gohan and Rob in Bana's Cafe

Dog meat (asocena) is commonly available on menus in the Mountain province and it gets even more bizarre then this the more rural you go. Bats and ants are not uncommon foods for local tribes. It’s understandable, as larger protein sources tend to become scarce when in dense rainforests. Chickens and pigs are saved only for special occasions.

So how did eating dog come about? Well, my source of information has come directly from Sagadans who eat dog on a regular bases. They informed me that dogs were originally kept for hunting and protection. Before war or during a time of crisis a dog would be sacrificed as it was and is still believed, the spirit of the dog will offer protection. According to research, the number of tribal wars and internal conflict in the Mountain Province is directly proportional to the number of slaughtered family dogs.

Times of unsettlement between tribes still continues to this day. The last feud was between Sagada and Bontoc ten years ago and resulted in the loss of three lives. Dogs were sacrificed thousands of years ago, continue to be sacrificed, and will continue to be sacrificed for the right reasons. The dilemma that is being faced by the people of the mountain province is the growing demand to see dog meat on the menus of local restaurants. The dogs are not sacrificed for any other reason then the consumption of their meat. A law was passed in 1998 as part of the Philippines Animal Welfare Act, stating that dogs should not be killed unless it is part of a religious ceremony (and a few other reasons which are not relevant in this topic more info: http://askville.amazon.com/countries-people-eat-dogs/AnswerViewer.do?requestId=415239). This resulted in a large number of restaurants being shut down in Baguio, Bontoc, and surrounding towns of the Cordilleras. You are now less likely to see Asocena on the menu in Baguio then in a smaller more rural town, as it is harder for these restaurants to be regulated by the law. In most cases, the police of these smaller towns see it as tradition, and do nothing to report it. The locals deem the clamp down on asocena a threat to traditional ways.

…So asocena meat was for dinner. It was actually meat from a dog, which had been sacrificed the day before for the annual Meeting of Local Guides. I was told by Gohan black dingoes are preferred as they are considered to be the tastiest. The hair of the dog is burnt of and the skin is kept on the meat.


Well…. I tried it. I truly expected it to taste like “dog”… but it didn't. It was gamey, beefy, and almost goaty. The meat was defiantly tough, but I don't know if that’s how dog meat is supposed to be. The cuts were unfamiliar to me, so I wasn't sure which bits I was eating, nor which bits were supposed to be tastier.  I avoided the skin, and truth be told, I also avoided taking second helpings. Like balut, it was a mind over mater thing. If I was served asocena without being told what it was and it was slow cooked in a tasty gravy, I think I’d chomp it down happily. But as it was served, skin on and very visibly “dog”, I found it hard to digest. I tried to copy Gohan in how he was eating his piece, but he obviously had years of experience ahead of him compared to me. I doubt I’ll try it again knowingly. Maybe next time I won’t know and I’ll actually truly enjoy it!

Pinikpikan was next on the menu, or as locals call it: “killing me softly chicken.” I couldn't believe my ears when I was told about this local delicacy. Again, it is something reserved for special occasions only, and we were honored, but also slightly scared to be the special occasion… this is why: Pinikpikan is a chicken which has been beaten with a stick whilst still alive, it is then killed butchered and cooked. It is claimed that beating the chicken whilst alive bruises the skin therefore bringing blood to the surface and thus improving the taste of the chicken. The occasion follows with the chicken being shared out amongst the guests. The youngest girl gets the wing, the youngest boy gets the leg, the oldest man receives the head, and the eldest women… the chicken bum (an actually priced part of the chicken in the Philippines, as the chicken only has one!) We weren’t around when the “killing me softly” part was happening, but I did see the plucked chicken in a thin blue plastic bag, and it was a sight to behold. I felt horrible for having been the reason that an animal had to go through any kind of pain. The killing had been done, and the only thing I could do was eat the poor bugger. I kept telling myself it’s tradition, it’s tradition, it’s tradition and that the foie gras I’ve had in the past is no different. 


As you can see from the image above, the chicken’s skin is quite dark. This darkening isn’t from soya sauce, but from the bruising. I got the wing, as tradition states. I found the meat to be rather tough and chewy, but then again, that’s the preferred texture for most Philippinos. The taste was meatier then regular chicken. It was cooked in a really interesting way: with smoked venison at the bottom of a tall pot; followed by smoked pork belly; then the chicken; a few crushed, but still whole stems of ginger; finally all covered with water and left to simmer on the hob whilst the flavours mixed for a couple of hours. Lastly some Pac Choy, or Chinese cabbage as they call it here, was added on top in the final few minuets of cooking. The broth was served in a bowl, and it had the most fragrant and smoky aroma. It tasted really good. The smoked venison fell apart in my mouth and the pork belly was so soft and salty, I savored every mouthful.

Smoked pork belly, smoked venison, pac choy and ginger flavoured the tasty broth

I can’t say I really enjoyed the asocena nor the pinikpiken. I was however, extremely grateful that Gohan went out of his way to give us the true taste of the Mountain Province. Around the world there are some very different, sometimes bizarre, culinary traditions in practice. For some people it may seem backwards and un-civilised, and for other’s it’s an insight into a culture trying to hold on to tradition. Gohan had taught us so much about the culture of the Mountain Province. It’s a place we found very difficult to leave. The people, the culture, and defiantly the food all took us by supprise. I know I will return as I believe there is still so much to learn from the area. But for now I know two things for sure: I will never look at a dog the same way and that the spirit of bruised chicken will always hunt me….

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