FOOD: How To Survive A Filipino Boodle Fight
First things first - leave your brass knuckles and switchblades at home. This isn't that kind of fight. Make sure you pack a big appetite and your pair of pants with the stretchiest waistband. You'll be needing them.
The scene of the fight? Anaheim, California. Home to such wholesome things as Disneyland, the Mighty Ducks hockey team, and that heavenly Angels baseball team. With such family-friendly venues to pick from you may be asking yourself how I end up risking my fingers in a culinary throwdown inside a strip mall on a Friday night?
I blame Josh. Or should I say thank Josh?
You see when you travel often enough you start to collect travel friends. People you meet while on the road or while trying to find information out in the great big social world of the internet. And that's exactly how I met Josh - an online group of travelers sharing information. Well, to be more accurate I met Josh while standing on a crowded Red Line train commuting home from work one chilly Chicago evening when I heard "David, is that you?!" being shouted through my earbuds by a man standing a foot away from me. Such a small world isn't it? You chat with people from all over the globe day to day without ever meeting in person and then suddenly you're sharing a train car together and just happen to stand right next to one another.
Fast forward two years and I'm headed to Los Angeles to visit Josh and his wife along with another kind soul I knew through this online travel group - a beautiful Hawaiian lady named Ginny that I lovingly refer to as my Aloha Mama. My goal for the quick trip to Los Angeles was to eat a little nosh and hang a little with people I enjoy, so needless to say I did a pretty piss-poor job of planning any type of activity for the entirety of my stay. Naturally.
So when Josh sent a message out asking if we'd be interested in doing a special "kamayan" meal at a local Filipino restaurant with a linked photo that looked pretty similar to the above food spread, you better believe my appetite had its proverbial wig snatched.
Yes please, take all my money. Sign me up twice. I'm down.
Now thoroughly excited and essentially foaming at the mouth for my chance to enjoy what appeared to be a delectable feast of epic proportion, I set about doing a little more research into the meal itself. As a Navy brat growing up with mostly Filipino friends, the cuisine of the Philippines is something I'm pretty familiar with. I can pound the pancit, attack the adobe, level the lumpia. But a "kamayan" meal is something I hadn't heard of before.
A bit of quick researched revealed that in the Philippines a "kamayan" meal is one where you dispense with utensils and eat with your hands. While "kamayan" was the word Josh used and the word used by the restaurant (MFK by Aysee) on its website, the term I kept running across while doing my research and speaking with Filipino friends was "boodle fight. Now maybe it's just my unrefined personality but when it comes to eating anything that's described as a fight seems much more interesting to me. And with a bit of experience behind me now, it's also a bit more accurate.
According to Wikipedia (which we all known is the sole bastion of accurate information) the term "boodle fight" developed from US military slang for contraband sweets in a riff off the term "kit and kaboodle". With the long and complicated history of the US military in the Philippines (which we won't get into here), eventually the term transferred into the local military to describe meals where food was laid out on long tables on top of banana leaves and soldiers lined up shoulder to shoulder to eat. With no individual plates and the entire meal served communally to a group of hungry soldiers, it's not hard to see how this style of dining came to be best described as a fight.
My online research showed me that many people still adhere to the concept of the meal being a fight as they often kick off the meal like a sparring match by having someone say "Ready on the left, ready on the right, commence boodle fight!" Any meal that begins like a boxing match has my full and undivided attention. So stretch those fingers out and practice your best hip check - if you want to eat you're gonna have to get down and dirty.
The day of the feast arrived and we headed to the restaurant, a small storefront in a strip mall sandwiched between a liquor store and a Kenyan joint. Josh, Ginny, and I arrived together and were met by Josh's wife and son and another ten individuals who'd been added to the guest list over the course of a month. Two members of the restaurant's staff were already hard at work laying out the massive amounts of food when we arrived and I immediately knew that this was going to be an amazing meal.
MFK by Aysee serves the boodle fight banquet by reservation only and only with 72 hours of advanced notice. The meal comes with a few items automatically included and then you select six additional items from a long list of entrees to complete the feast.
So what did we get?
Let's start with the life blood of just about any Asian meal - white rice. Mountains of it. It's the backbone of this meal as it formed the base of the entire mound of food going from one end of the table to the other. Everything else is piled high on top of the trough of sticky white rice. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Then there's the crispy, oily Filipino "egg rolls" called lumpia. They may look like the egg rolls you expect to get at your neighborhood China Hut, but you'd be sorely mistaken. The wrappers on lumpia are thinner pastry skin, almost like a phyllo. The skin is wrapped around a variable minced mixture of vegetables and meat and then deep fried . Need something a little more meaty? There's lechon kawali, a crispy pork belly that's deep fried and heavily seasoned. Once puffed up and crispy it's chopped into bite sized squares that you can pop right into your mouth like a fattier popcorn kernal. Just the way God intended.
Want a little taste of the sea? There's several whole milkfish on the table! Pan-fried with skin on to make sure you're getting that full flavor affect. The bones are still inside so if you're sensitive to that, nibble with care. If fish isn't your forte you can move to the calamari rings. It's exactly what it sounds like - chewy rings of squid that are dredged through a heavy coating of batter before being tossed into a pot of oil for a heavy frying. Noting a lot of fried food on the table? Yup - a boodle fight isn't just dangerous for your fingers, Your heart is at risk, too, my friends.
If you're like me and watching your figure, you'll want to enjoy a few bites of the items above but then move on to some of the other offerings on the table. What about some chicken adobo? Considered by some as the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, adobo is a cooking method that involves marinating and simmering meat in vinegar, garlic, and soy sauce. The end result is meat that is sweet and tangy and generally fall-of-the-bone tender to the touch. If you're unfamiliar with Filipino food and want to start with something that's easy to love - go with adobo.
Or you can try the tocino. An variation of pork belly that isn't deep fried, this time the meat is sliced into strips and cooked with wine, annatto (a seed that is nutty and sweet and gives tocino its bright red color), sugar, and salt. While not fried it still has the decadent melt-in-your-mouth umami that is forever associated with pork belly, making it a fan favorite at this boodle fight and I'm sure many others.
Both the adobo and the tocino aren't fried but you probably picked up on the fact that they're still pretty unhealthy, eh? Yup, nothing I can do about that folks. If you come to a boodle fight, you need to come prepared to take a few metaphorical punches, and that includes a few to your delicate diet plan.
If you're really trying to find the healthiest options on the table you can stick to the oodles of fresh shrimp, a handful of the ensaldang kamatis (tomato based pico de gallo), or any of the fresh fruit slices that are delicately piled into the mix.
As you can see above even with eleven hungry mouths sitting around the table, sadly we weren't able to come close to finishing off the offering. We left a substantial amount of food to languish on those banana leaves which simply could not be shoved past quivering lips any longer. We gave it our all and failed miserably. While there were definitely moments where people were fighting to get another piece of their favorite item on the table, I came to realize maybe the boodle fight isn't about you vs. your friends so much as it is all of you vs. the meal itself.
And if that's the case, does this mean we lost the boodle fight? Hmmmmm.
With 52 countries under my belt I have to say that this is probably the most interesting and unique meal I've had to date. Despite having numerous Filipino friends I've yet to make it to the Philippines, but my experience chowing down in Anaheim has really sparked my interest in making it out to one of the last countries in Asia I have yet to visit.
Now admittedly a boodle fight might seem like it isn't for you at first. Filipino food is likely something unfamiliar to you. Communal dining can be off-putting to people who like controlled portions and plated meals. Eating with your hands with ten other people is a germaphobe's nightmare. Yeah - I get it. But you should also get over it.
A boodle fight has a lot to offer that makes it worth leaving those concerns far behind you! Amazing, tasty food that you've probably never had before. Camaraderie with your fellow diners as you explore the pile and fight for the juiciest tidbits. And if you're just so lucky to be in the Philippines to enjoy one, a diverse and massive country to explore before and after your meal.
All things considered, i realize I've answered my own question. No one ever loses a boodle fight. This is one fight where every one is a winner.
So until next time, happy travels and ..... commence boodle fight!