Manila Bay’s precious gifts

Published November 4, 2021, 11:00 AM

by Sol Vanzi

The natural harbor in the port of Manila is more bountiful than we think

CAPITAL CITY REPRESENT Manila Clam (Getty Images)

To millions of people in many towns and cities, Manila Bay is more than just a body of water. It has been a means of transport, livelihood, and recreation for those who, like me, grew up along its shores.

Manila Bay provided clean water to salt beds and fish ponds. It also nurtured fish as well as shellfish for home consumption and small businesses.

The municipal waters of the bay provided fertile breeding grounds for several fish varieties, some of which are unique to the area. Among them is the saliniasi (sardines), which looks identical to the very expensive tawilis of Taal lake. Many unscrupulous fish vendors sell saliniasi as tawilis to unsuspecting buyers, since there is no way to find out if one is buying the real thing. They taste alike anyway, so only the vendor and the fish know the truth.

Gray mullet is another fish that proliferates in the bay. Called talilong when small and banak when large, mullet is prized for its tender flesh and firm roe. Mullet is best enjoyed in pinangat or paksiw.

A SOURCE OF LIFE Men fishing at Manila Bay, 2013 (Nlandu Ngoy) The bay is one of the best natural harbors in Southeast Asia and the world

Anglers love buwan-buwan (turbot), which are good fighters when hooked. Growing as large as two kilos in the bay, it indicates that the bay waters have become cleaner and safer.

Shellfish galore—In the 1950s and 1960s, shellfish abounded along the bay shores and in the river banks where mangroves grow thick. As kids, we gathered purple halamis and kaligay, which we devoured like peanuts during school recess breaks. Sadly, these are no longer to be found, victims of pollution and reclamation.

Mangrove clam—The roots of mangrove trees along the banks of rivers feeding the bay provide shelter for lukan, the green-shelled brackish water clam, which grows to almost three inches across. Tasting less salty than regular sea clams, lukan flesh is like the freshwater tulya from Laguna de Bay.

SHELL AND TELL Hankering for oysters? Manila Bay’s got you

Sleeping seagull—When I was a kid, I believed that seagulls came from giant shellfish called tabulog, a pen shell as large as 12 inches long, the flesh of which resembles uncannily a sleeping white bird.

Around the world, the clam we know as halaan is called Manila Clam, believed by some to have originated here and traveled to America and Europe by hitchhiking aboard Spanish ships and galleons.

My father used to dive for tabulog, often coming home with dozens at a time. He showed me to keep only the round white muscle and discard the rest. That white muscle is what we call scallop, now sold for thousands of pesos per kilo when freshly shucked. Whole live tabulog are even more expensive at sushi shops.

Mini scallops—The translucent shells of capiz are used in traditional windows and modern chandeliers. Capiz is like scallops and used to be abundant in Manila Bay. Today, the capiz shell industry has moved south to the Visayas, closer to the source of raw materials.

Bloody bivalve—Batotoy (blood cockle) is largely taken for granted in the Philippines but desired in many countries as sushi and the main ingredient in stir-fries.

WHY SO SHELLFISH Blood cackle or batotoy in Filipino

Prolific mussels—The most visible and available bivalve from the bay is tahong (mussel), which grows and multiplies rapidly almost everywhere. The variety we are most familiar with is green and with flat edges. A new variety that has recently appeared is the olive-colored, small, and cylindrical.

The Manila Clam—Around the world, the clam we know as halaan is called Manila Clam, believed by some to have originated here and traveled to America and Europe by hitchhiking aboard Spanish ships and galleons.

Goodbye oysters—Roadside shacks used to sell fresh oysters along the highway from Zapote to Cavite City.  Pollution has killed both the bay oyster farms and people’s appetite for Manila Bay oysters. Today restaurants and hotels get their supplies by air from the Visayas.