Filipino fish favorites

A look into staple seafood dishes for Filipino families

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At a glance


    When buying  fish, our ultimate goal is to get “sariwa” (fresh) and not “ilado” (spoiled or no longer fresh). That is the root of the Pinoy aversion for seafood that has been preserved in ice. Early Pinoys adapted the Spanish word helado, which means iced, to mean food that has not been preserved well in ice.

    Many consumers believe that fish sold at wet markets are fresher than those sold frozen at supermarkets. While this could have been true decades ago, it no longer is the case, thanks to advances in aquaculture, transport, and refrigeration practices.

    Fish these days are sold frozen thousands of kilometers from the rivers or ponds they were caught or raised in. Commercially caught or raised fish is blast frozen within minutes and kept at very low temperatures until they are bought by consumers.

    In contrast, smallscale fishermen and vendors keep their fish supplies in iceboxes with just a small amount of melting ice, exposing their fish stocks to temperature fluctuations that affect the quality of the fish. Frozen seafood sold at supermarkets has been my favorite bargain for several years. The quality and price have been reliable, unaffected by typhoons, strikes, and calamities.

    Salmon, bangus, and galunggong

    Top favorite varieties on the Filipino families' list are bangus (milkfish), galunggong (mackerel), (tilapia), and salmon. All are sold at both supermarkets and wet markets. Here is a guide for how to get the freshest catch.

    Salmon’s telltale burns

    Not all salmon heads are alike. Salmon heads reach supermarket shelves in two forms. One is when a whole salmon is cut up to be sold as steaks and fillets. The second is when heads are shipped in bulk from canneries and processing plants. If you befriend the supermarket ladies, they might sell you the second kind.

    Salmon heads shipped in bulk, 10 kilos per bag, are often kept in storage for long periods, resulting in freezer burn because of their high oil content. The oil gives the fish surface a reddishbrown surface and a rancid taste.

    Salmon bellies have to be picked carefully. Avoid the slices that are slimy and with very strong fishy, and oily juices.

    Tilapia from the west

    Veteran fish vendors all insist their tilapia is from kanluran (west), meaning Batangas, and not silangan meaning Laguna Bay. They would also imply they are from around Taal Lake. The mineral-rich waters around the volcano supposedly produce the best tilapia.

    Kanluran tilapia have thicker bodies, shorter heads, and black scales while silangan ones have flat bodies, pinkish scales, and fins.

    Wholesale savings

    My five kids love crispy fried galunggong, which we served several times a week. When I spotted a Japanese-labeled box of frozen galunggong at the palengke, I traced it to a supermarket and found out I could save 20 to 35 percent by purchasing fish by the box!

    Storage was no problem as my brood could finish 10 kilos (one box) in less than a week. I soon learned that supermarkets have items for institutional buyers, which are not displayed for everyone to see.

    Bangus of all types and cuts

    Bangus is definitely the most raised fish in the Philippines, and for good reasons. It could be cooked hundreds of ways and is available throughout the year.

    A couple of years ago, I found packs of frozen bangus heads and tails bearing the name of a popular Mindanao fish company. Half kilo bags for less than ₱30. The product disappeared from my supermarket later.

    But last week, I found a surprise on Facebook: bangus heads and tails for ₱240 for a three-kilo pack. Payment by Gcash, delivery by courier. The announcement had few details. Only the seller: Sally’s Frozen Goods.