NOTE: This was originally posted in my old blog.
Image of tuyo from Panlasang Pinoy
I just had tuyo for dinner. Been eating a lot of it lately.
I’ve always liked tuyo. I’m not one of those Pinoys who left the country as a young child and all of a sudden, it became a hot bed of stinkiness. I love tuyo with vinegar, and the more drenched the better. I love it’s crispiness, it’s saltiness, and like a piece of potato chip, you can’t have just one. It’s the taste of my childhood and when I imbibe I do so with energy.
The decidedly Filipino delicacy has been on my mind lately. It all started with a trip to Chicago two weeks ago. I stayed with a grand aunt who cooked tuyo for us every breakfast, upon our request. “Us” included: me, who was born in the Philippines and left when I was 11 yrs. old, still able to speak the native tongue fluently; a cousin who left at 2 yrs. old and is as American as she can get; my youngest brother who was born and raised outside of the country. Despite the different length we had been immersed in the Philippines, we all dipped our stinky, crispy dried fish in vinegar and ate endless tuyo with a serving of rice. Just how it’s supposed to be eaten. Of course I do like it with kamatis like in the above picture, but that’s another story. During one of these Chicago breakfasts, we were joined by other cousins as well, all born and raised in Illinois. When my grand aunt expressed a chuckle about our tuyo breakfast in one particular gathering, the overwhelming consensus was in favor of tuyo. Most of the born and raised in Illinois folks had a fondness for the dish.
I’m not sure why, really. I mean, what about it is appealing? At first inspection nothing. It’s not very pretty to look at. Most times the heads are still on, the dead eyes staring at you. They don’t smell savory, let’s be honest. Nationalistic or not, they smell pungent, and the smell permeates and lingers. A lot of Filipinos cook it outside the kitchen just for that reason (their neighbors don’t like them very much). They don’t have a complex flavor. When the fish is first smoked then dried, it does have a bit more flavor but other than that, it’s salt, salt, and then the fishy taste. It’s also pretty messy to eat. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to recommend it!
Yet it endures. Up and down the country, endless households eat the thing for breakfast whether they can afford something else or not. Tuyo endures migration. If you see an Asian person with brown skin and they’re shopping for tuyo, let them open their mouths and a Filipino dialect will come out. If you see a Caucasian person with the dried fish, they’re the long-suffering spouse of a Filipino person. Or they’ve come to the dark side.
We Filipinos have a lot habits we try to shed once we leave the country. Putting a foot up on the chair while we eat, eating with our hands, being late to an invite. We learn to acclimate to the country we’ve inhabited. We try to speak without an accent as much as possible (though why a Filipino accent is considered uglier than another, I have no idea..but, another post), we learn colloquial expressions “that’s sick! that’s what she said! oh, snap!” We learn laws, how a laundromat works, how newspaper stands work, how to shovel snow, and drive on the highway. No matter what, we still eat tuyo. A lot of Filipinos are in agreement that balut is disgusting, and can’t stomach it. But we still eat tuyo. A lot of Pinoys learn how to be an American and appears as so most of the time, but once tuyo is on the table, all bets are off.
Suddenly we’re eating with our hands (how would we pick on tuyo with a knife and fork?!), our foot hitches up on our seat, and perhaps an accent slips. We don’t care, we’re surrounded by people who must love us because they endured the cooking of tuyo in the house! And they’re eating right along with us!
This foul smelling dead fish endures migration, Americanization, ridicule. We eat it, head and all sometimes. WHY?
And I guess the answer is some variation of “the heart wants what the heart wants”. In this case, the Pinoy tastebuds want what the Pinoy tastebuds want.