This week, I reviewed Song Phang Kong, Beng Rajsombath's tiny restaurant in the International District serving Laotian and Thai food. Among Rajsombath's delicious offerings is her tham mak hoong, or green papaya salad, with tomatoes, fresh and dried shrimp, red chilies, and unfiltered fish sauce. To me, it's the fish sauce—a murky gray sludge of fermented anchovies—that really makes this dish great, balancing out the sweetness of the shrimp and fruit, and giving the whole thing a primordial saltiness and depth of flavor.
But the first time I visited Song Phang Kong, Rajsombath served me a salad made without fish sauce—one that was inferior, too sweet, and lacked complexity. "Oh, I'm a little afraid," she explained to me. "For many people, it's too much." It saddened me to hear this, but it didn't surprise me. Cooks from other cultures making food in the United States have been toning down their flavors because they've been told they are "too much" for a long time. But that may be starting to change.
Geo Quibuyen and Chera Amlag, the people behind the successful monthly pop-up Food & Sh*t, held every third Monday at Inay's on Beacon Hill, are betting that Seattle diners are ready to handle some of the Philippines' strongest, fishiest flavors.
On Monday, June 15, they'll be serving a five-course menu based entirely on bagoong, which Quibuyen describes as "that pungent pinkish grayish fermented seafood semi-liquid that is the soul of many Filipino kitchens. An indigenous, time-tested product that existed before Spanish colonization and American imperialism, always ready to funk the party up." (Side note: It's always worth your time to read Quibuyen's write-ups explaining the theme of each of Food & Sh*t's menus. They're beautiful meditations on food and culture that I look forward to every month.)
I was thrilled when I saw the menu for this bagoong dinner, but then again I'm a Filipina who grew up obsessively slathering pink, salty bagoong on slices of green mango, and making a dipping sauce of bagoong, garlic, black pepper, and vinegar every time my family was lucky enough to be eating shrimp or crab for dinner. I was reminded what Quibuyen and Amlag—and many other chefs and cooks—are up against when, after I tweeted about the event, a friend asked, with genuine curiosity, about bagoong's flavor and then declared "I often like this sort of stuff but feel like with bagoong I might be getting in over my head."
The beauty of bagoong—which can be made from both shrimp and anchovies—is that it isn't just one flavor or texture. There's bagoong alamang, a gritty, chunky pink paste of shrimp whose earthiness counters sweetness of squash and bitterness of ampalaya (bitter melon) in dishes like pinakbet. There's also bagoong guisado, a slightly sweetened, sautéed version of the paste, which balances out the aggressive sourness of unripe mangoes. I get that these flavors might be intimidating or frighteningly unfamiliar to people. But as diners increasingly value and pride themselves on seeking out "authentic" food, it's important to at least try these flavors before deciding they're overwhelming.
For Monday's dinner, Quibuyen says that, along with store-bought products, they'll also be using two kinds of homemade bagoong: one made of shrimp, the other made from his parent's stock of anchovy-based bagoong monamon.
"Both my parents have been making homemade bagoong as long as I can remember but I only started last summer," he wrote in an email. "Partly out of curiosity about the process, partly out of carrying on a family tradition, partly out of knowing I’d want to do an all-bagoong-themed menu one day." Both the homemade bagoongs will be served as condiments for the lechon (roast pork) course, where their bracing fishiness will help cut through the pork's luscious fat.
You can make reservations for the dinner here.
Also, if you're curious about Filipino food, you're in luck, as two other pop-ups are planned for the coming weeks. On Friday, June 26, chef Yana Gilbuena's traveling pop-up Salo, which she's been bringing around the country with the goal of holding Filipino feasts in all 50 states, will be at Pike Place Market. You can make reservations here.
And on the heels of their two sold-out dinners over Memorial Day weekend, Lahi Seattle, a modern Filipino food project from chefs Irbille Donia, Justin Legaspi, and J.P. Yost, will be holding a pop-up on Sunday, July 5. The exact location is still TBD, but Donia tells me reservations will be available through DYNE. There will be bagoong.