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FOOD AND LOATHING : Letter From a Liver-Loather


Liver. For me it's a love-hate relationship. I'd love to love it, but I really hate it. Heaven knows, I've tried to eat it, but I just can't.

There's no prejudice involved. When I was a kid, my mother took me to a Danish lunch in Solvang. Along with meatballs, red cabbage and cucumber salad, we were given a tiny cup of brown paste. I tasted this, not knowing that it was leverpostej , which is Danish-style liver pate . And I gagged, groaned, retched and struggled to get the awful, weirdly textured stuff out of my mouth.

That's the way it's been ever since. Whenever I'm served liver I sample it, hoping this will be the dish that releases me from gustatory bondage. But it hasn't happened.

Paradoxically, I've eaten some really strange things without a qualm--like a snake blood cocktail prepared from a reptile killed before my eyes. That was in Haiphong, Vietnam, at a lunch in my honor. I didn't dare show a trace of revulsion or I would have offended a table of Vietnamese who were eyeing my reaction.

But this snake blood thing was already old stuff. In Taipei, where there's a street of snake stalls, a Chinese friend bought me a drink blended from snake blood, venom and bile. I downed it in a gulp, showing off, of course. I didn't know until later that he was scared stiff I'd get sick. (I didn't.)

In Hong Kong, I ate shrimp brought live and wiggling to the table, and I consumed without hesitating the squares of congealed blood that traditionally go with soyed goose, a Chiu Chow specialty. Slivers of blood are an authentic part of Chinese hot-and-sour soup, and I sneer at the bloodless versions served here.

In Veracruz, Mexico, I ate brain quesadillas, and in Hong Kong I managed all sorts of unusual items that showed up as dim sum. I still wonder what those long, stringy innards were.

Dinuguan , a black mixture brewed from pork blood and what are nicely called "variety" meats, wasn't bad at all. I volunteered to try it at a party in the Philippines and was shocked that I actually liked it. But I'll admit that the best part was the sweet steamed rice cake, called puto , that goes with it.

Durian, the fruit not allowed in hotels, airplanes and elevators in Southeast Asia because, frankly, it stinks, is one of my favorites. I've put away exorbitant amounts of it standing by the roadside in Malaysia. I even like the smell. The same goes for Southeast Asian shrimp paste, which most people consider really foul. It fills the kitchen with an indescribable rotting fish aroma when you saute it, but I don't mind. Just try cooking Indonesian or Malay food without it. You'll have a lifeless version of the real thing.

There is, however, one challenge, besides liver, that has defeated me. In Singapore, I ordered a bowl of fish-head curry, a small bowl, just for me. The sauce was great--rich and creamy--and the fish meat was delicious. But that one-eyed stare was too much. I got the eyeball halfway to my mouth, then plopped it back. I tried again. No luck. Finally, I got the darned slippery thing in my mouth. It sat there a few moments. Then my throat rebelled with waves of revulsion. Out popped the eyeball, back into the bowl. It's the one time I could have said, "Please take this away--and bring me liver."

I'd never make liver sauce for myself, but I've tasted it in the Philippines and found it almost manageable. The sweet flavor is appealing, and the vinegar and other seasonings help mask that dreadful liver taste. Best of all, you eat it in small--for me that would be extremely small--quantities along with lots of wonderful, savory roast pork.

In the Philippines, the pork would be lechon--crisp-skinned roast suckling pig. Over there, I'd wash out any residual liver taste with generous sips of a green mango shake or fresh calamansi juice. Then I'd move on to a luscious cake or pastry to wipe out the memory.

This recipe comes from "Philippine Cooking" by Herminia Robles Carino (Minart Investment).

MINI-LECHON WITH LIVER SAUCE 3 to 4 pounds pork butt 5 cups water Liver Sauce

Place pork in large pan with water and boil at least 20 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place in baking pan and bake 2 to 3 hours at 400 degrees until outside is crisp. Cut into serving pieces and serve with Liver Sauce. Makes 8 servings.

Liver Sauce 1/4 pound pork or beef liver, cut in 1/4-inch slices Salt, pepper 1 tablespoon oil 2 cloves garlic, minced 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1 cup water 1/4 cup vinegar 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed 2 teaspoons soy sauce 1/8 teaspoon oregano 1 bay leaf 1/4 cup bread crumbs

Season liver to taste with salt and pepper and broil until cooked through. Grind liver in meat grinder and set aside.

Heat oil and add garlic. Cook until garlic is slightly browned. Add onion and cook until onion is tender. Add water, ground liver, vinegar, brown sugar, soy sauce, oregano, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper and bay leaf. Stir and bring to boil.

Remove bay leaf. Add bread crumbs. Cook and stir until sauce is smooth and thick. Add more water if thinner texture is desired. Makes about 2 cups.

Each serving contains about: 277 calories; 501 mg sodium; 125 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 9 grams carbohydrates; 27 grams protein; 0.08 gram fiber.

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