NEVER SAY NEVER – How I came to eat a worm
Months before we left on our trip to the Philippines my sister posted a video on my Facebook page. It was part of an episode of the show “Bizarre Foods” filmed in the Philippines with host Andrew Zimmerman. In it, he tries a local delicacy in Sabang, Palawan – raw mangrove worms dipped in calamansi juice (a local citrus fruit). He walks up to a couple of locals on the beach. They’re hacking open branches they’ve gathered from a mangrove tree to remove some unsavory looking worms. Zimmerman, laughing with amazement at how big and fat they are, dubs them “mangrove snakes.” In fact the worms can grow up to a foot long.
“Are you kidding me? Look at the face on him. He has the face of a screw bit,” says an excited Zimmerman. Wow, I can’t imagine placing those things in my mouth.
He proceeds to eat the worms. Not the big fatties but tiny, thin strings that resemble anorexic cousins of the earlier ones.
“Fabulous,” he says.
“Gross!” I say. I commented on the video post stating I would NEVER try it.
Fast forward eight months and the last thing I’m thinking about is that video. “The Chef” and I are in Sabang on the same beach waiting for our tour group’s turn to enter the Puerto Princesa Underground River. Our group consists of a couple of fellow Canadians, a sweet couple from Mindanao celebrating their anniversary and three young women who I think are from Manila. We’re having lunch and, no, worms are not on the buffet table. Little did I know that the anniversary couple had ordered a small bowl of ‘tamilok’ from one of the roving vendors on the beach.
I think you know what’s coming. Yes, these are the worms. But they are prepared as ‘kinilaw’ – raw but cleaned and marinated in vinegar. It’s kind of like ceviche.
Filipinos are a very hospitable and generous people and so not surprisingly the anniversary couple offer to share their ‘tamilok’ with everyone at the table. I’m adventurous and the prospect is intriguing. I put on a brave face and express my interest. The small bowl is shoved toward me. I think to myself, “Maybe it’s not so bad.” I take a fork and slowly lift up a worm. It’s slimy and covered with what looks like a gelatinous substance like raw egg white. My stomach churns and my gusto suddenly deflates. No thanks. I feel defeated.
“The Chef” and I leave the table to take a walk along the beach. I’m enjoying the warm sea water on my feet but somewhere in my consciousness my little failure is nipping at me. Here I am on a once in a lifetime trip. When will I ever come back here? I bemoan the lost opportunity.
We head back to our group and by chance we bump into my parents and my aunts and uncle. Their tour van happens to stop right in front of us. They are in Puerto Princesa too but on a different tour and have just come from seeing the mangroves. They are just having their lunch and invite us to join them.
My uncle orders ‘tamilok.’ I’m feel excited and uneasy. I get my second chance!
Someone at the table says it tastes like an oyster. I have a plan to make it more palatable. I pick up one end of a worm with my fork and roll it up like spaghetti. I open my mouth big, as big as my mouth will open, so I don’t have to feel the texture of the worm on the sides of my mouth or on my tongue. I don’t relish the thought of too much chewing and swallow it quickly before my mind has time to protest against my actions. It’s not so bad. Maybe it was the power of suggestion but it did indeed taste like an oyster.
My mother is fearless. “Sarap!” she declares. That means delicious in Filipino.
What was I so afraid of? Getting past your fears can free you from your own self-imposed constraints and open the door to limitless possibilities. So “Never say never”. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it.