THE BITTER INSIDE
WORDS BY ALYSSA KONDRACKI
Imagine you are seated at the dinner table. A bowl is placed in front of you. Steam billows off the brim. It’s contents: oil-slicked broth over slivers of meat and various bite-sized bits of offal—partially submerged like pale grey and dark brown pebbles beneath a shallow riverbed. Ginger root wafts, pleasingly pungent. A puckered green finger chili floats on the surface of the broth, summoning you.
You lift spoon to mouth. You bite down on strips of sliced beef tenderloin, stomach lining that has been salted and boiled into tender submission, and a few toothsome morsels of innards (liver, heart, intestine, pancreas). The broth you sip is harmonious—an aromatic flavor bomb—generous with ginger and enough zing to cut through the richness. But hold on, there is a bitterness that grips you by your collar, and firmly picks you up with one hand. Just as you are about to brace yourself, toes reaching for solid ground, it gently places you down and mellows out.
What in the world just happened? What is this?
This is papaitan (pah-pah-EE-TAHN) a Filipino dish native to Ilocos (a region in Northern Luzon). Its name derived from “pait” meaning “bitter”.
That unique and distinctive bitterness you detect is from bile. Yes, bile.
Chicken soup this is not, nor is it asking to be. You could tell just by looking. But to those that enjoy papaitan there is a certain comfort apparent as with all beloved traditional dishes. And like most provincial cuisine, its crowning virtue lies in the use of what is available and economical—the very definition of “top-to-tail” eating, where nothing is wasted. Traditionally, this dish is made with goat, but cow is also popular, and depending on who is in the kitchen there are a myriad of ways one can customize this dish to suit one's personal tastes (yes, there are alternative ways to recreate the bitterness using bitter melon gourd and leaves) just like any recipe that has been passed down through generations. But those that stick to the old school ways know that preparing this dish takes time. There is care involved as anyone who has skillfully made offal palatable will attest. Proving that the most challenging of ingredients (the ugly, off-cut, and cast-away) are often the ones you are meant to coax forward, sometimes from deep inside, until they sing beautifully and confidently in tune with the rest.