Asia Express is a clean, cozy, family-run establishment that will cook you a mean bung.
I had the benefit, when I started writing this column, of a pretty respectable list of target dishes to cover. Limburger and menudo were on the list. Ackee and codfish was, too. The dishes of the Easter egg hunt were on the list, albeit without the seasonal conceit. But other dishes come by way of luck, random discovery, or suggestion from friends or other Isthmus staff. Thus oysters, durian, and the Valentine's Day erotic confections.
So with the fairly momentous addition to the Fringe Foods pantheon that follows, I'd like to take you behind the curtain a little bit; break the fourth wall so to speak. The scene is January of 2008, and I receive an email directing my attention to a new post titled "The Lengths I Go for Pig Bung" by local blogger John Benninghouse. What followed was a 17-month, nigh-Arthurian quest to determine to what lengths I would go for this quintessentially "Fringe Foods" dish.
If you've been reading for a while, you've probably noticed that I like to give a little sociological/historical lesson about the dish I'm trying for you. The way I see it, if wine aficionados can focus on terroir -- the French word for "soil" that encompasses the way the grapes' growing environment affects the flavor of the wine -- then foodies can just as well take into account the culture and circumstances that conspired to make a certain food or dish come into being.
There's not a lot of complex history with pig bung, though. It shows up most frequently in Chinese cuisine, sometimes going by "pork bung." This is no trifling difference in terminology, as I'll explain in a moment. Like menudo, pig bung is a product of efficiency, frugality, and a little bit of poverty thrown in for good measure. When the finer cuts -- the belly, the hocks, the loin -- are gone, "what's left" becomes "what's for dinner." Think ears, hooves, jowls, and bung.
At this point, you must be pretty sure what I'm talking about here. But there's a handy mental defense mechanism that allows for even the most astute human brains to shield themselves from a knowledge they'd rather not acknowledge. There are plenty of examples of this with regards to pig bung; see two different discussions here and here on Chowhound. Even when photographic evidence is included, some people continue to insist on being bewildered by the definition.
To get to that definition, though, we must first get to a restaurant that serves it. In this case, there is but one: Asia Express in Sauk Point Square. Nondescript name, nondescript location, but solidly reviewed by multiple sources, Asia Express is operated by a husband-and-wife team and remains a very personal venture. They were closed during much of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, which stymied my first attempt to dine on pig bung.
My second try was also nearly thwarted, this time by sheer incredulity. The male half of the ownership team was working the counter and kitchen, and my attempts to order "crispy pig bung"were met with raised eyebrows, suggestions of other dishes, and questions of which animal it was that I wanted to eat; saying "pork" instead of "pig" clarified things somewhat. Eventually, I had to draw an admittedly rudimentary picture of a pig, circle the part in question, and draw an arrow to it. Yes, we're talking pig anus, and I had to draw one to get it. Try that next time you're playing Pictionary.
Specifically, the bung comprises the last few inches of the approximately six-foot long intestinal tract of the pig -- thus providing a precise answer to the question of the lengths one goes for bung. "Pig bung" is a convenient contraction of that long definition, and has the added benefit of masking the true identity of the dish for a moment. Of course, all my silly attempts at explaining my desires were wholly unnecessary; the name of the dish is written in English and Chinese on the back of the specials placard at the counter.
Confusion mostly allayed, the chef asked me if I traveled to Hong Kong often (I don't), and how I heard about this dish ("the Internet" is such a silly answer). I really wasn't trying to be inscrutable, but it was clear that he didn't know quite what to make of me. But he retired to the kitchen, and returned a few minutes later...with my food packed to-go. I, on the other hand, had set up shop at a table, ready to eat in-house. As a result, my food was packed, unpacked, and replated; all these transfers took a minor toll on the heat and crispness of my food.
Benninghouse described crispy pig bung as "cracklin ... made like M&Ms," and that's an apt comparison. The shell of fried exterior is thin but crunchy, just enough to give a familiar texture to a dish that is altogether foreign to the typical Western palate. The interior of each ring, sliced about half an inch wide and the diameter of a big pickle slice, is soft and a little rubbery. Compared to the chewiness of menudo, though, it's positively buttery. And that crunch is a lifesaver.
Fringe Foods stories can be divided into the dishes that I could finish, and those whose remains were relegated to the literal dustbin of history. Unlike menudo, pig bung enjoys favored dish status in the former category. The pickled cabbage (not to be confused with kimchee) over which the bung is served is a bright, tangy counterpoint, and the chili paste at each table adds smoky heat to the spartan presentation of crispy pig bung. If you can get it served fresh from the pan, I suspect it might almost be the revelatory experience that others describe.
The only other disappointment of my crispy pig bung experience was what didn't follow it; this is another frequent occurence in Fringe Foods planning. I had hoped to present a two-part battle of pig offal, with bung dueling against chitterlings. That will have to wait for another day, as chitterlings are usually served in fall and winter. For as long as it took me to finally come face to face with crispy pig bung, though, it's only fair that it hog the spotlight. For as good as it turned out to be -- not great, necessarily, but certainly good -- a 17-month wait was clearly too long.