January 25, 2005
Manong, penge naman ng balls mo!
Sometimes if the wards are not that busy, my co-interns and residents would go down and exit the Emergency Room so as to take a 10-minute break from the hustle and bustle of hospital life. Confident that the patients we left are not that "tigokable" (our term for critically ill patients), we hurry down the elevators and pass the chaos of ER and walk across the asphalt road to this rickety orange cart where one can indulge in a Hepa-A infested treat. "Manong" (the generic term for all Manila ambulant vendors) was happy to see us for he immediately took out his half-empty plastic bag of fishballs and chickenballs and drop these to the hot oil.
I believe business was going well for Manong because if you stand under the fierce heat of the sun just to stir the oil while perspiration dripping down from your chin and no one is buying, then you are plain crazy or plain stupid, or even plain desperate. Wait, prolonged sun exposure can actually make people crazy, but not this time though.
So, armed nothing but recycled barbecue sticks, we began to prod and probe those little balls of paradise bobbing up and down in the sizzling oil. The aroma wafting from the wok was intoxicating. Our salivary glands were pumping full time. We waited and waited until those pieces become turgid, i mean inflated. You're not satisfied with turgid? Then, plump will do. I can almost hear my co-intern say "Uy, tumatambok na ang balls mo manong!" Wehehehe. We kept turning those fishballs and chickenballs until they have achieved a golden crispy color indicating that these are ready to eat.
Heaven knows where these balls made first contact. Can you imagine if his hands that cook the balls are the same hands that that handle his bacteria-laden coins, his sweaty forehead and equally sweaty handtowel, or even his snotty nose? How about if he has crabs (pubic lice) and continually scratches his groin and behind while handling the balls? The results are two-fold. One, you can thank the guy for a free extra flavoring, and you can expect to develop indigestion while performing a cholecystectomy later on. (A gall bladder operation can leave you standing on the operating table for at least 2 hours!- the longest I assisted was 6 hours.) But the worst thing one can get from eating his all-Pinoy grub is not diarrhea but Hepatitis A. Was the Hepa A outbreak in UST during the 90s due to fish-ball eating? I don't know. But I know seeing people in different degrees of jaundice has expanded my definition for the word yellow, which now includes the words teal, lemon, chartreuse, ochre and tangerine.
After waiting what seemed like eternity, we proceeded to jab ruthlessly onto the hapless balls. Sadistic streaks manifest momentarily as we enjoyed sticking each ball into the next stringing them in perfect array. Manong, satisfied that many came to poke his balls, began to open his sauces for which our "spoils of war" shall be dunked. There are three types of sauces which Pinoys know by heart: 1) sweet, 2) spiced vinegar, 3) sweet spicy. As to the ingredients, heaven knows what mysterious flavors and spices go into it. Some older folks say, the sweat from the Manong makes the sauces more piquant thereby delivering a distinct flavor from the rest of the commercially sold sauces. And the vinegar one...well, let's just say, it's homemade. And why is the sauce brown? Who know? Most probably, Manong never dared replace the whole batch of sauces from the start, for he may just replenish it everyday making the batch more flavorful, thick and dark knowing that all the residual sauces from the previous years are still there.
So, I settled for the sweet-spicy one while my friends and residents went to the classic sweet. With the sauce lathered on every corner of my chickenballs, I started chomping them down piece by piece with nary a care if Hepa A will strike or not. And my co-doctors agree too. Even if we know eating in this type of eatery is never free from bacteria and disease, we still are confident that contracting food poisoning is far from happening, besides, a lot of people (students, nuns, nurses, passers-by) have been making "tusok-tusok" in Manong's wok long before we entered the fray. So, in a sense, we are just part of the statistics.
And so after enjoying a respite from the daily grind, we realized that it's back to work. Not without a take-out first.