Fat, Flavors, Family
Everything Is on the Table at Oriental Mart
I want to begin with communism. We are always told that a communist society is impossible—a utopian dream that, in reality, must end in madness and mass murder. We're constantly bombarded with those awful teabagger, or "teahadist," posters that show Obama (socialism), Hitler (Nazism), and Stalin (communism) as one and the same evil. But Obama is not a socialist in any real sense of the word, Nazism cannot be communism because it's not universal (if Nazism was inclusive, what would be the problem?), and Stalin was not a communist but a Stalinist. Communism, in fact, isn't some region in the clouds of a pinko's imagination, but something that's real, tangible, familiar, and diurnal. You don't go to communism, but more come from it.
And this brings us to a little Filipino lunch spot in the Pike Place Market that's part of a family-owned business called the Oriental Mart.
What do you mean we come from communism? Communism begins with the family—that is, a properly functioning family. What does a family do? It raises children with no expectation of a financial return. Child rearing is often thankless, yes, but always an act of pure giving. And pure giving is an act of love. And what is love? (All of these questions!) Love is the eternal. Meaning, the feelings you have for your children and for your parents are not limited by time or place.
This timelessness, which is true communism, is where you come from, not what you're going to. Communism is nothing but the attempt to universalize these initial conditions (the pure giving of the family) and eternal feelings (love). As David Graeber's new and brilliant book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, says, communism is all those things "we assume will be there—our mother's love, true friendship, belonging, the existence of the universe."
With all of this in mind, let's return to the Oriental Mart, to its hanging Asian clothes and ornaments, to its shelves packed with a variety of Asian foods, and, ultimately, to its stools and counters that surround an open kitchen operated by a family—grandmother, daughters, granddaughters, and grandsons.
But there's one other thing that's worth considering before I describe the plates of fish, pork, chicken, rice, and noodles I recently devoured at the delightful Oriental Mart. The thing, which is frequently pointed out by the evolutionary anthropologist Robert Boyd, is this: Without a culture, an individual is stupid. For example, put an American man/woman in the middle of the Arctic, and no matter how high an IQ he/she has, he/she will be dead in no time. To live in the Arctic, you need access to the culture of Arctic life. The Inuit have such a culture. And so the dumbest Inuit will always be years smarter than the most brilliant American who is stranded in the Arctic. My point: I went to the Oriental Mart with someone who knows the culture of Filipino food, Bradley Sweek, a Filipino American who also happens to be married to the copy chief of this paper, Gillian Anderson.
As the dishes arrived, Sweek, a regular at the Oriental Mart (he is 100 percent certain that it's the best Filipino restaurant in the city), explained that the food is not only about the Philippines (which is made up of more than 7,000 islands), but the famously global Filipino diaspora. The best example of this is the sinigang, which is a soup composed of salmon tips ($8.99—every dish comes with rice and pancit noodle). "Filipino laborers in Alaska were allowed to take the fish tips home," Sweek said. "And you know that's where most of the fat on a salmon is." Once again—and all cultures are great at this sort of thing—what was once trash has been transformed into something marvelous. "Because all of the fat is in the tips, I now think it tastes better than the more prized parts of the fish," Sweek said.
One of the women behind the counter informed me that though it's fine to eat with a fork, it's culturally acceptable to eat with your fingers. You simply pour the soup and fish tips (which draw their flavor not from spices but from the fish itself) over the rice, and then make a little mountain with your fingers, like a bulldozer, and slowly destroy this mountain with your fingers, like an excavator. (I didn't eat with my fingers; I'm nowhere near that comfortable with her culture.)
Chili beef ($8.99), the next dish, is a serenely sweet combination of meat and vegetables that, again, is not distorted by a wizardry of spices. The cooks at this place do not bend over backward to surprise you; the goal of their kind of cooking is to be honest and satisfy you.
Then the chicken ($6.99) and pork ($8.99) adobo. The owner of this business, Mila Apostol (she opened it with her husband back in 1972—"not many Filipinos in Seattle back then"), feels that this is her kitchen's best dish. A few bites of the slowly cooked meat made me side with her opinion. Sweek, however, believes the dinuguan stew is the best ($8.99). "It looks like chocolate until you eat it," he explained. "The color comes from pig's blood." The cook added that her version of dinuguan "contains pork meat, and not the usual tripe." Sadly, this fantastic-sounding dish was not offered on the day of my visit. "Come Sunday—I will make it then," promised the cook, who was now casually frying up some fish.
"When you eat at a Filipino home, everything appears all at once—starters, the meal, dessert. Everything is on the table," Sweek explained as he bit a fish tip—bone, fat, flavors, satisfaction. He is eating with his fingers; he is at home here. Oriental Mart is nothing but a family kitchen in a public space. And the family is where we all come from. We begin life within a warm circle of communism.
This article has been updated since its original publication.