May 23, 2007

Filipino Donuts & Michael Chabon's THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION

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If you are wondering what's up with the odd title, please read on. The donut will be explained after the review of the book.

Spoiler alert: If you are here looking for shtekeleh and have not read the book in its entirety, please scroll to the bottom of this page for the recipe page.

This is a superbly written novel set in the fictitious Federal District of Sitka, Alaska, where the Jewish people were given a safe haven by the US government after the collapse of Israel in 1948. (There is a real Sitka with about 10,000 people but here it is fictitious with a population of more than 2 million). The city has been striving for 60 years but with its coming 'reversion' back to Alaska, their dream of having a permanent state and to become real Americans is again threatened. The main character is a homicide detective Meyer Landsman who had to investigate and deal with rabbis, rebbes, the affluent and Jewish gangsters to find out who murdered his neighbor. He found out that the death was connected to his own sister's accidental death a few years back and discovered a graver event that even he was not able to prevent from happening. Michael Chabon managed to be both very funny and thoughtful in this 1940s noir style whodunit. The book has lots of yiddish terms which are not that difficult to understand, although I had to google and look for the meaning of a few yiddish terms at the I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

Now, why the Filipino donut? In the book there are a few Filipino characters: a boy who delivers the detective his lumpia, housemaids, a chauffer, hired thugs and the one who owns a donut coffee shop called Mabuhay Donuts. He is a 70-year old Filipino ex-boxer who is a valuable 'informant' to the detective.

Pages 172 - 173:

The Filipino-style Chinese donut, or shtekeleh, is the great contribution of the District of Sitka to the food lovers of the world. In its present form, it cannot be found in the Philippines. No Chinese trencherman would recognize it as the fruit of his native fry kettles. Like the storm god Yahweh of Sumeria, the shtekeleh was not invented by the Jews, but the world would sport neither God nor the shtekeleh without Jews and their desires. A panatela of fried dough, not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets. You sink it in your paper cup of milky tea and close your eyes, and for ten fat seconds, you seem to glimpse the possibility of finer things.
The hidden master of the Filipino-style Chinese donut is Benito Taganes, proprietor and king of the bubbling vats of Mabuhay, dark, cramped, invisible from the street, stays
open all night long. It drains the bars and the caf├ęs after hours, concentrates the wicked and the guilty along its chipped formica counter, and thrumps with the gossip of criminals, policemen, shtarkers and shlemiels, whores and night owls. With the fat applauding in the fryers, the exhaust fans roaring, and the boom box blasting the heartsick kundimans of Benito's Manila childhood, the clientele makes free with their service. A golden mist of kosher oil hangs in the air and baffles the senses. Who could overhear with ears full of KosherFry and the wailing of Diomedes Maturan? But Benito Taganes overhears, and he remembers. Benito could draw you a family tree for Alexei Lebed, the chieftain of the Russian mob, only on it you would find not grandparents and nieces but bagmen, bump-offs, and offshore bank accounts. He could sing kundimans of wives who remain loyal to their imprisoned husbands and husbands doing time because their wives dropped dimes on them.
With the mouth-watering description of the donut, which I believe is called bicho or bicho-bicho in the Philippines, I was inspired to make these delicious shtekelehs.

hope this is what he wrote about: fried dough, not quite sweet, not quite salty, rolled in sugar, crisp-skinned, tender inside, and honeycombed with air pockets

The recipe for bicho-bicho is here.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the donut recipe and book review ... but no thanks for the spoiler you include in the review. Readers like me, who search for info about shtekeleh, will find your site. But because shtekeleh appears in the book before the plot point you so carelessly reveal, my enjoyment of the book is diminished. Please remove the spoilers in your review.

San Francisco

Oggi said...

Sorry if I wrote something that diminished your enjoyment of the book. I never intended it to be a spoiler but rather a teaser to encourage people to read on and finish this wonderful 400-page novel. I have added a spoiler alert but will not remove anything from my original post, unless Mr. Chabon himself asks me to.:=)

Anonymous said...

You know what, I wouldn't worry too much about Jonathan's enjoyment of anything. He doesn't seem like the enjoyment type. -Don

Oggi said...


by: ypille mia said...

Thanks for the recipe referral Ms. Oggi. My frequent stops at the local Chinese buffet and sampling their "donuts" is the closest thing to the Filipino donuts I grew up eating.

And now with this recipe on hand for me to try, I see doors opening up for me - the doors of my taste buds I mean... :-)

Terri said...

Nice post Oggi! Pinned it for our trip North next month! I want you to know that we really enjoy your blog! Thanks for sharing this with us! :)

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