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Most of that gunk comes from the PCV system. I always had good success with plain ol' brake cleaner when I was cleaning the inside of manifolds when I was applying epoxy coatings.

On the "idle spider", it's there. if you look into the intake runners, you'll see a small hole in the floor of each runner. The hole connects to the passages below the main manifold. But they're usually not gunked up because the PCV doesn't flow through them.
 

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The plugs don't perform any function on the car. They're there as part of the casting process.
 
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