Saturday, September 24, 2005 A.D.
Bleargh Survey: Hard Sell Serving Suggestions
You should remember them. They prominently figured in ad campaigns of yore, products that, in a way, did make an impact on our cultural memory (although why they did in the first place boggles the mind). It seemed that we were offered these food preparations by marketing mad scientists and we took delight in them, largely because we kept seeing them on television. After all, anything good enough to be broadcast couldn't possibly be wrong, could it really?
Star Rice - The name itself needs no introduction. It also needs no explanations except for those who don't like to take things as they are. Literally, Star Rice is the resulting mixture that you get by adding a few spoonfuls of Star Margarine to warm rice. Non-literally, it can mean anything from a particularly inspiring grain of radiant rice to whatever it is that they feed to talent search winners for them to reach that extra octave. It can also mean a dog's benign tumor if you're really poetic. You can concern yourself with radiant rice, singing contests or suspicious canine lumps, but for this entry, we will only deal with the concoction that we get by mixing Star Margarine with warm rice. Incidentally, you can try using cold rice, although your final product will end up as a lumpy group of unpalatable rice clusters smeared with pasty yellow clumps.
In general, 'margarine' refers to all butter-substitutes, whether they are derived from animal or vegetable fat (the latter being more popular these days). It was discovered by the French during the 1800s as a more portable and less costly substitute for butter. Like most food invented by the French though, it hardly proved edible. This was because back then, margarine was extracted from beef fat and was colored white due to the absence of artificial coloring. Conventional dairy farms naturally championed butter and looked down on margarine, which they considered bootleg butter. Various legal tactics were employed in keeping this bootleg food product off store shelves. Since then however, pure creamery butter became something of a rare luxury when the popularity of margarine spread (cheap pun not intended), with butter-margarine mixtures becoming more common of late, even though they couldn't be marketed as 'butter' in most countries. The popularity of all things bootlegged spread, generally speaking, and it shouldn't be surprising should someone eventually come up with a margarine substitute to be sold in tiangges by whispering but hardly secretive mustached vendors.
Star Margarine has been around in the Philippines since the 1930s, before refrigerators became commonplace, and until now, this popular table spread requires no refrigeration. The Department of Health seal of approval was added to the label in the early 90s, after it was fortified with Vitamin A (Star was still owned by Procter & Gamble then). Most Filipinos were Vitamin A deficient, as a study conducted then showed, and Star Margarine was a good choice for Vitamin A fortification because its consumers mostly belonged to the lower-income classes. It was, after all, a cheap and easily available product that didn't need to be kept in a refrigerator. This DOH endorsement encouraged many other companies to fortify their products with Vitamin A as well, ironically raising the potential for toxic Vitamin A overdoses.
Derived from hydrogenated palm oil, Star Margarine assumes a pasty, semi-solid state at room temperature and has a deep almost-orange shade of yellow. While I suspect that the shady color is mostly artificial, the added Vitamin A no doubt contributes to the overall hue. The actual margarine spreads easily on most surfaces, but despite how tempting it may seem at times, it is simply not advisable for people to spread it just anywhere. Please note that it's only meant as a substitute for butter, even though one can think of 1001 uses for Star Margarine, from the practical and the industrial to the downright deviant. To add, Star Margarine also comes in tubs of varying volumes, and as far as I can remember, the tub has always been colored canary yellow. Regardless of size however, Star Margarine tubs are always handy to keep around as containers except for furred or feathered little creatures.
As much as Star Margarine is rich in Vitamin A, it is also rich in trans-fats. Trans-fats result from the hydrogenation process, which solidifies vegetable oil into the familiar spreadable paste. Trans-fats are just like saturated fats in that they raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Margarine however, unlike butter, does not contain cholesterol, and the San Miguel Corporation makes it a point to put 'no cholesterol' on the Star Margarine label, never mind that trans-fats are actually more threatening than dietary cholesterol. Still, it is true that they do have one point over butter. One thing about Star Margarine that puzzles me, however, is that it seems to be the only table spread of its kind available in the market. It is not necessarily good or bad, it's just different.
Knowing all these dietary facts didn't help me in my attempt to rediscover what Star Rice was all about. I remember that it was being advertised as a nutritious supplement for faster growth (Batang Matangkad, Batang Star!), although it still confounds me how margarine can supposedly help increase a person's height, especially since Star Rice was marketed in the 80s before it became fortified with Vitamin A (which actually improves eyesight). It should be an industry standard by now, what with the average Filipino's vertically challenged disposition, for advertisers to promote products with the promise that steady consumption could make everyone taller. With all the added height that we should all be receiving supposedly, it's a wonder how our current generation still hasn't developed gigantism. The ideal scenario for the Philippines, apparently, would be for us to become a nation of basketball players. We would all be over six feet tall but utterly useless with chronic heart conditions because if consumption of Star Margarine could indeed get us a couple of extra inches, then just think of the resulting artery blockage that those extra inches would come with when even at room temperature, Star Margarine already assumes a semi-solid form.
I mixed in two tablespoons of Star Margarine into a standard cup of steaming rice and kept mixing until the rice mixture appeared uniformly yellow. I ate two spoonfuls and noted that Star Rice tastes slightly salty, with the somewhat artificial-tasting flavor sticking around long after I have swallowed the rice. It can be compared to fried rice in terms of texture, although softer to the palate. What really distinguishes Star Rice, however, is the smell, which I think is also Star Margarine's one differentiating factor from all its other competitors. The familiar fragrance, however artificial it may seem, is something that people have come to freely associate with Star Margarine over the years. It is a point of polarization though, as some people love it while some people simply cannot stand the smell. For myself, I don't mind the smell at all. I ate two more spoonfuls just to make sure I remember what needs to be remembered. I never particularly enjoyed eating Star Rice even as a kid and I didn't particularly enjoy it now. I realized that I probably didn't have a Vitamin A deficiency, so the health benefits I got out of eating margarined rice were close to nil. I didn't even feel taller after.
All in all, I wouldn't recommend Star Rice to anyone who wants simply to grow taller. There are better products available for this purpose, like elevator shoes and encyclopedias. Star Margarine can possibly help improve your eyesight, fortified as it is with Vitamin A, but you also risk developing a heart condition with over-consumption. It's not necessarily evil though, as it is proven to work for undernourished people whose diets aren't as taxing as most of ours are. Of course, you're probably improperly nourished if you have been following fad diets, so it's perfectly ok for you to eat Star Rice all the time, although seeing as your fad diets probably prescribe you to avoid eating carbohydrates of all kinds, just eat Star Margarine, minus the rice, straight out of the tub, and by the spoonful, then take delight in your improved vision.
Sarsi with Egg - Again, this is pretty much self explanatory: empty the gooey contents of one whole uncooked egg into a mug of Sarsi rootbeer. Why someone even thought up this concoction is beyond me. Why someone even decided to market this concoction baffles me further. It's probably a direct consequence of the philosophy that putting two perfectly good things together will result in a perfectly better thing. It's also probably a direct consequence of the instance when someone put a hippie with a chronic case of the munchies in a room with a poorly stacked refrigerator. If vanilla ice cream, a dairy product, can be used to make rootbeer float, then why the hell can't we use raw eggs to make special rootbeer float when they also qualify as dairy products?
We do not know the exact origins of Sarsi with Egg, but we do know that sarsaparilla is a type of plant, used among other things, to create a certain drink, aptly named 'sarsaparilla.' We also know that the sarsaparilla plant was known as 'rabbit root' to Cree Indians, who used it as a cure for syphilis (no, dipping your infected bits in Sarsi won't work). The sarsaparilla drink belongs to the larger family of rootbeer, which as the term implies, is a brew made by fermenting yeast, sugar and extracts from various barks and/or roots. Rootbeer has been around since the 1800s and is regarded as a classic softdrink. Though rootbeer recipes have varied over the ages, original rootbeer was commonly flavored with sassafras roots until the 1960s, when sassafras was found to contain the carcinogen safrole (modern blends typically use artificial flavorings to replace sassafras extract).
Sarsi is also considered a classic softdrink in the Philippines. It's arguably the most popular local rootbeer brand, having been around for several generations. Until recently, Sarsi was entirely marketed by Cosmos Bottling Corporation, known as the 'other' softdrink company who, despite having competitive brands, has always lagged behind the multinational giants that are Pepsi and Coca Cola. Despite this, Sarsi has always managed to stay popular and it has even reached the crowning achievement of branding, which is of course inspiring the name of a bold star. Ironically, Sarsi Emanuelle became the most famous among the stable of softdrink starlets beating out Pepsi, Coca and Mirinda. Apparently, the Cosmos brands are now owned by Coca Cola, hence the resurgence of Sarsi in fast food fountains, where the less popular Barq's was seemingly phased out. Sarsi Emanuelle, in a rather peculiar coincidence, has also found something of a career resurrection, although not in fast food but on TV, where she joins the cast of a tele-serye. In recent years, the Coca Cola Company has also started marketing Sarsi regionally (the drink and not the former bold star), introducing the well-loved beverage into neighboring nations. In what may be considered either as bad timing or poor foresight, they introduced Sarsi right about the time when SARS was all the rage, prompting some people to think that they were mocking both Pepsi and SARS at the same time (strangely, an Australian sarsaparilla brand named 'Sars' exists, becoming popular among tourists during the epidemic, who were amused that they could buy 'SARS in a can'). Incidentally, it's not funny at all to mock SARS, because SARS, like other living things, has feelings too, theoretically speaking. It's also not funny because it can very well kill persons and economies in a matter of days. It is ok, however, to mock children under the age of five, because you know that they can't really outsmart you.
Sarsi, the sarsaparilla from Manila, hardly qualifies as classic rootbeer. It's more softdrink than beer, with a body more carbonated than foamy and with a distinctly sweet aftertaste. It's also not as smooth or as creamy in texture as classic rootbeer brands are (i.e. A&W and Mug). I recall, however, that Sarsi used to be foamier when it was still sold in those old angular bottles. One could appreciate the foam by dipping their upper lip into the drink entirely to make rootbeer mustaches that kept disappearing easily, prompting stupid kids to keep dipping their snouts into the frosty mugs. What remains consistent about Sarsi though, is the strong sarsaparilla flavor. The flavorful bouquet, however artificial, still leaves that same fruity bite. As potent potables go, Sarsi is arguably more robust than other rootbeers. Again, people either love or hate the Sarsi smell (the drink and not the former bold star). Similarly, I don't mind it at all, and I sometimes think that I do actually like it.
I filled a highball with ice cold Sarsi and carefully cracked the contents of an average sized chicken egg into the drink. The drink seemed to grow foamier with the addition of the egg, although I found the presence of the undisturbed yolk suspended near the brim of my glass quite unsettling. I assumed that this was the proper way of drinking Sarsi with Egg so I took a sip and regretted at once doing so, noting that the raw egg just floated on top of the liquid. I knew I was risking salmonella poisoning, but I was adamant that I should get to drink Sarsi with Egg at least this once in my lifetime. I remember having someone tell me about the carbon in the Sarsi apparently being able to 'cook' the egg, except I wasn't seeing any such kind of reaction so far. Hoping to induce some kind of reaction in the mixture (and not yet worrying about inducing potential reactions in my digestive system), I got a swizzle stick, actually a chemist's glass rod, and stirred the drink, ending up with a concoction that was foamier and had the color of chocolate milk. The resulting drink also had a layered head, with a creamy first layer and a second slightly chunky yellow layer (the yolk, I presume). The mouth of my glass was gurgling with viscous bubbles and I found it harder then for me to dip my upper lip into the foam, smelling the unmistakable odor of raw egg. This was a rootbeer float after all. It was just chunkier and biologically under-processed but a rootbeer float all the same. I stirred further, but only managed to disturb the topmost layer of foam, observing that the addition of the egg easily caused the soda to go flat. Mustering the strength of bodybuilders who swear by raw eggs, I gulped a few mouthfuls, not daring to breathe in the process. I must have drunk half the glass before I realized that the concoction was more egg than Sarsi. This simply couldn't be, I thought, because I wanted to drink Sarsi with Egg and not the other way around. I emptied more Sarsi into my glass and was delighted to see more of the creamy foam forming on top. I swallowed a few more mouthfuls and decided that regardless of it being Sarsi with Egg or Egg with Sarsi, I simply didn't like how it tasted like fishy licorice, how it felt like chunky porridge going down the gullet, or how it left a slimy sensation in the mouth after.
I love Sarsi (the drink and not the former bold star). I also love eggs. I love my Sarsi cold and my eggs cooked, however. I can't recommend Sarsi with Egg to anyone, not when I can't enjoy it myself. Raw eggs, despite this, actually contain many complex proteins and fats, and eating them can prove to be beneficial in the long run (raw fish too). Salmonella contamination, while somewhat prevalent in live poultry, occurs rarely with eggs, as most salmonella-infected hens actually lose the capability to lay eggs. Raw eggs that are left exposed to the environment (i.e. scrambled eggs for dipping) are actually more prone to salmonella contamination via airborne bacteria, so it is best to cook or consume eggs right after they have been cracked open. Eating raw eggs, however, will take getting used to, and if I slowly build up the capacity to eat them, I know that I'll probably try Sarsi with Egg again eventually. It must be one of those things that take time to grow on you, like wisdom teeth, mutant hair, and extra nipples.
Mang Tomas, All-Around Sarsa - They want us to believe that this popular brand of lechon sauce actually has the same versatility of ketchup and they took a MacGyver mom to endorse this, accompanied by the MacGyver theme in the TV spots. In the commercials, the MacGyver mom offers Mang Tomas as a quick solution to the members of her family, one of whom was looking for ketchup, another for something to eat with leftover rice, and yet another who was looking for some kind of sandwich spread.
According to folk legend, Mang Tomas was actually the one who discovered lechon (the national dish), when he found his prize pig burned to a crisp after a fire burned down his house. Furthermore, Mang Tomas was supposedly an ancestor to the lechon dealers in La Loma, being Mila, Ping Ping, etc. I first heard the legend from a maid when I was young, who poorly explained it to me (thanks to a language problem), leaving me to believe that Mang Tomas was actually the one who got burned to a crisp. It was a confusing situation I found myself in, noting that we kept using a sauce that had cannibalistic overtones. Moreover, why was Mang Tomas even smiling on the label? It just wasn't right for somebody who got roasted alive to be commemorated on a food label smiling and sporting a salakot, looking like a happy Katipunero.
Traditional lechon sauce is made primarily of liver and spices. Reading through the ingredients (water, sugar, breadcrumbs, vinegar, iodized salt, liver, modified starch, spices, pepper, etc.), it can be said that Mang Tomas is essentially your average lechon sauce. It used to be sold as 'lechon sauce' too, even if the current label calls it an 'all-around sarsa.' That Mang Tomas can maintain a consistent level of brand recognition is definitely to its credit, as other lechon sauces hardly taste different (such as the short lived bottled Andok's). This probably is due to the fact that other brands simply do not have the backing of folk legends. The Mang Tomas label makes sure to point out via a red starburst that it is rich in iron, and it is a known fact that liver really is a good source of iron. I generally find people who enjoy liver odd, but that's just me (that's really big coming from me because the girlfriend does). There used to be a variant of the sauce that was marketed to contain more liver and this was predominantly packaged in red instead of yellow. It must not have yielded better sales because the red variant is now only a spicier version of the sauce. Promising a higher concentration of internal organs does not a good marketing campaign make unless you are selling liver spread, in which case, then you're much better off just quitting your job (unless you're French).
For this little undertaking, I decided to go for Mang Tomas as a sandwich spread, having already tried out a rice preparation earlier (Star Rice). I poured a significant stripe of Mang Tomas onto a piece of sliced bread, nothing fancy. A pan de sal would have made for a better photo, but I recall that the MacGyver commercial used sliced white bread anyway. Surprisingly, among the three preparations, I had the least problems eating this thing up. Essentially, Mang Tomas was only a sweeter, spicier and more watered-down version of liver spread, so a Mang Tomas sandwich isn't as inappropriate a combination as Sarsi with Egg (Star Rice isn't so bad). I don't like liver personally, but Mang Tomas somehow found a way to mask the presence of liver, which I think they were able to achieve by simply adding more of the other ingredients, in that the resulting mixture contained practically very little liver. It may be considered cost-cutting, but that's good for non-liver lovers like me. I don't mind that they added both breadcrumbs and modified starch to the recipe when they are in essence the same, just as long as I get to know in what way the starch was modified.
While I wouldn't recommend for anyone to eat a Mang Tomas sandwich, I could assure them that eating one wouldn't activate your gag reflex as much as Sarsi with Egg and to an extent, Star Rice, would. Is this a good thing? Not necessarily, because you would have to be severely wanting mentally or overly famished to even consider eating such a thing. Not even MacGyver himself would eat this during an emergency. Had he been friends with Mang Tomas, he would even have found a way to extinguish the fire that birthed the lechon in the first place, negating Mang Tomas' legacy. Angus MacGyver is God, and Biblical scholars can attest that God just does not like pigs.
I think that I'm simply too curious for my own good sometimes. I realize that I could have actually come up with the same piece without bothering to taste the actual stuff, but then that wouldn't have been as fun (it wouldn't have been as traumatic either). I still find myself asking the same questions that I did at the start, particularly who thought up this stuff? and for the love of God, why? Although it would seem as if I achieved nothing in this little undertaking, I do like to point out that I have learned an important thing out of this: I found out firsthand that things get forgotten for a reason and sometimes, they should remain that way. More importantly, I learned how not to trust older people whose jobs involve thinking up unnecessarily novel ways of preparing food. Some things just go together, like milk and cookies, peanut butter and jelly, and beads and lubricant, while some simply do not, like milk and lubricant. Still, this update was an interesting piece to research (anything that poses health risks usually are), and it leaves me wondering how next to traumatize myself.
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Blech!!! Quoting you: "I think that I'm simply too curious for my own good sometimes."
You must've been spending a lot of time at home and in the kitchen. Get out and savor the sunshine! (if it's not raining, that is.)
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