What’s the one thing all them hipster kids learned from attending that infamous 7,107 music festival? Hopefully, a geography lesson. The Motherland is made up of—drum roll, please—7,107 islands. That’s a whole load of land mass. Naturally, one can surmise from this factoid that the PI is surrounded by lots and lots of water.
If your genius mind figures that out, then once again, one can conclude that Filipinos eat a lot of fish and seafood.
If that is so, then why is it that when the rest of the world talk about our cuisine, they talk about…sisig? Lechon. Adobo. Balut, even. Nobody is talking about bangus ala pobre or paksiw na isda!
I ain’t gonna lie now. As someone who’s eaten Filipino cuisine all my life, I’ve come to realize that I still don’t know much about our cuisine, and I’ve really just scratched the surface. That especially goes for my knowledge of our local seafood. When you hit up the wet market, there’s sooooo many fish, and a lot of them seem so alien to me. It’s quite daunting, actually.
Like in many things, the idea is to not be shy, and just jump in, experiment, and try what you can. Your curiosity will be rewarded!
Before anything else —some easy tips when choosing fish at the market:
- Look at the eyes. Best if they’re clear, like your head after a good night’s sleep. If they’re red and bloodshot as if they’ve downed a bottle of whisky, and slept for an hour, skip ‘em.
- Check the gills. You’re looking for a nice, rich red.
- Smell them, like how you whiff your pits to see if it’s all good in the ‘hood. Them fishies must smell briny, like the sea. If they smell funny, pass. Hell, pass on anything that smells funny.
- Touch them. Gently, you perv. It’s flesh should be resilient and bounce back.
Got those? Okay. Here’s some basic fish to check out that’ll hopefully get you on the road to enjoying more of our country’s vast wealth of seafood.
1. Lapu Lapu
This is what’s known elsewhere as grouper. Here on our shores, this is what they serve in higher end restaurants, as it is a prized fish. It’s meaty and satisfying, and goes well with preparations like pan roasting, then topped with a sauce, or steamed with soy sauce and ginger, Cantonese-style. If you want to food hack a Filet-o’-Fish samwich, this is the fish to do it with.
One of the more fashionable fish worldwide is the Chilean sea bass. It is grossly overfished, sadly, and it’s fate hangs on the line. I can’t blame people for liking it, because it is delicious. The apahap (aka barramundi, or Asian sea bass), however, is a great alternative. It’s meaty and the good ones are a bit fatty. A great way to chow down on this is to stuff it with lemon and herbs, like the Italians do, and roast it in the oven.
This humble little fish, a local sardine, tastes awesome. Treat it like you should a woman – ahem, with much respect – and you will definitely be rewarded. The best way I’ve eaten this is thrown on a grill. Eat it with some nice spicy or garlicky vinegar and hot hot rice, and you’re good to go!
Even smaller than tamban are these inexpensive little guys – the local anchovy. A lot of us may have tried this first at some Japanese restaurant, where they’re often served as a little snack to open your meal. I like ‘em fried crisp (who doesn’t?) and on top of garlic rice- classic Pinoy comfort food. I would even top this on pancit, or with other southeast Asian noodle dishes.
5. Maya Maya
Elsewhere known as snapper, this is another firm white-fleshed fish. Even in our waters it’s kinda rare, so when you find them they can be quite expensive.
Otherwise known as the milkfish, it is one of our most popular fish, with whole industries devoted to de-boning it as it has a whole load of tiny, annoying bones. The most popular way to eat this is, and probably the best way, is to marinade it in vinegar and garlic, then fry crisp. Ultimately, this is a true blue Pinoy’s seafood version of comfort food.
This super abundant fish can be raised and farmed, hence it also being ubiquitous. I myself often either really wanting it, or finding it a bit corny. I guess you just have to be in the mood to eat it. Its very mild flavor lends itself to many preparations, from grilling it, to filleting it, and putting it in coconut milk and spices, to frying it. It’s a very versatile fish.
Use your eyes out there in the markets, and develop relationships with your fishmongers. You can even ask them how to cook particular fish—they catch these things every day, so naturally they’re experts on how to eat them!
If learning about our cuisine is something that’s piqued your curiosity, I highly recommend you take a little journey via our seafood. It’s been on our tables way before that sizzling hot plate of pig face, I can assure you.
Now pass the Knorr and calamansi, bub.