What’s in a kare kare?

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Special to DNX

In the early 80’s we spent our weekends in Murcia, the hometown of my father. The commute was an experience in itself, especially with old rickety jeepneys jam-packed with passengers. There would always be a pair of wooden benches — called “extension” — which were placed on the aisle of the already cramped space. They served as sitting space for at least four extra passengers. The konduktor, who always crammed extra passengers in an imagined space only he could see, and a few others would hang on to the back of the jeepney, finding all sorts of footholds or spots they can securely hold on to for the duration of the trip.

My grandfather lorded over the kitchen for our weekend lunch, which usually had a meat dish in some sort of sauce. One of the dishes my grandfather prepared was karekare and this could have been the one item that developed my interest in flavors, texture, appearance, and other elements of food. It made my palate so adventurous and daring that I would have no qualms devouring practically anything. Kare-Kare is a stew made with oxtail, tripe, and cow’s leg oftentimes from knee to trotter, with a bland sauce made from ground roasted peanuts and rice, token vegetables, and a side of ginamos or fermented shrimp paste to season.

Kare kare. Photo from Flickr by takaokun.
Photo from Flickr by takaokun.

Dissecting the Kare Kare

An animal’s tail is both familiar and strange. It is shaped like a hotdog, has a springy bite like a hotdog, but has a fragment of a spine in its core which for a young mind is like unearthing a mini-dinosaur fossil from an archaeological excavation. In the symmetrical world of butchery, except for most offal, the tail and one other appendage is unique that there is only one per animal. That other appendage is an ingredient in a soup touted as an aphrodisiac.

Tripe are muscles from a cow’s stomach and the most commonly used are the rumen or blanket tripe, and the reticulum or honeycomb tripe. Tripe is springy, chewy and, depending on the thoroughness of cleaning, has certain degrees of gaminess. With that being said, it is an edible washcloth and like a washcloth it is laundered, soaped, scrubbed, boiled, and rinsed until it becomes more food-like. A careless preparation could result in an unpleasant experience reminding us that tripe is indeed once part of an animal’s digestive system.

Picking through a leg is a little bit more tedious than picking through a tail. The main leg or pata is gelatinous skin and tender meat fibers wrapped around a marrow-rich bone. Knees and ankle joints are a treasure trove of tendons — edible glue sticks of collagen which is said to enhance skin elasticity. The hoof, with its multiple joints, is reserved for the more meticulous eater with a mission to extract every edible morsel from its many nooks and crannies. Does this method of eating redefine the term “picky eater?”

Saucery. Food writing almost always refer to sauce as the element that binds ingredients together. In the case of the kare-kare it also hides and camouflages the not-so-pretty meat parts in a brown to orange velvety annatto-hued blanket. This sauce, made from roasted peanuts and rice, is mildly seasoned to defer to the more intense saltiness of sautéed fermented shrimp paste or ginamos. The use of fermented miniscule sea creatures like shrimp or fish is an essential aspect of Asian cuisine that is either loved or abhorred but in many cases tolerated if used as an accent or flavor enhancer. Ginamos in its raw form is an unappetizing reddish-purple paste but when sautéed with pork and aromatics, it transforms into a complex flavor, currently identified as umami, that marries well with the purposely under seasoned meats, sauce, and vegetables of kare-kare. Saucery, when the residue of a dish is still enough for someone to consume extra servings of rice, works well with the remnants of a kare-kare.

Vegetables. Yes, there are vegetables in the mix and I guess they are there for your conscience and to adhere to dietary standards.

All these ingredients meld well to create an incomparable experience that evoke the scents and memories of home.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Kare kare is also one of my favorite filipino dish. But the way you described the “wash cloth” and the sticky skin in the leg and tail, it did not help me to like it in that dish especially when u know about anatomy and physiology of the cow. However, i opted for meaty slices of either beef or pork, still for me does not change the taste. The culinary expertise can still bring the best of every dish.
    Thank you for writing. As a cook and a writer, i love your choice of words for kare kare. It enhance the taste, the flavor and the imagination.

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