Most of the Philippine food terms preserved in the early dictionaries and vocabularies compiled by the Spanish friars in the 17th century relate to fish and rice. This suggests that rice has been our staple for centuries. The dictionaries also suggest that our ancestors lived close to bodies of water—on the sea coast or on the riverbanks—making their diet rich in seafood.
The 21st-century Filipino has more food choices, and if we are to go by the CNN list of the 50 foods that define who we are, the dishes are mostly meat rather than fish, suggesting that our habitation patterns, our food tastes and cultures have significantly changed in the past five centuries. Food ways have been changed by modern appliances like refrigerators, freezers, and microwave ovens, and taste buds and memory have been altered by canned food, fast food, instant food, just-add-water food, etc.
Reading Chapter 23 of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” will give us an idea of a 19th-century picnic lunch made up of fish freshly harvested from river and baklad (fish pen). Maria Clara’s Tia Isabel supervises the chopping of vegetables and the preparation of a sinigang stock where the poor fish goes straight from cool water to boiling broth.
Tia Isabel says: “The ayungin (silver perch) is good for sinigang. Leave the biâ (goby) for the escabeche (fried fish with sweet and sour sauce), the dalag (mudfish) and the buan-buan (tarpon) for pesâ (ginger- and onion-based broth). The dalag lives long. Put them in the net to remain alive in the water. Langostas (literally lobsters but since they are not by the sea, refers to crayfish, probably the kind known as ulang) to the frying pan. The banak (mullet) is good for broiling, wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with tomatoes. Leave the rest as decoys. It’s not a good idea to empty the baklad completely.”
If young people today aren’t familiar with Tia Isabel’s fish, what more the obscure fish enumerated by Epifanio de los Santos in a lecture on the fishing industry that he delivered in February 1921 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan? In his lecture, Edsa (for whom Epifanio de los Santos Avenue is named) said fresh fish and rice formed the basic Philippine diet, citing a survey in 1903 where 90 percent of the Filipinos counted fish as the principal part of their diet. Edsa talked about fish nurseries, the first established by Domingo Coronel in 1863 in Barrio Concepcion, Malabon, and copied by others such that it spreed to Caloocan, Navotas, then Bulacan, principally in the towns of Obando, Polo, Malolos, and Hagonoy.
He discussed the semilla or kawag-kawag gathered during April and May from the coasts of Tayabas, Batangas, Mindoro, Marinduque, Bataan, Zambales and La Union and transported in clay jars that contained 2,000-5,000 of them to other places. He referred to fish food called verdin, an algae (Oedogonium) acquired much during the calm or in the months of March, April and May.
Since I get most of my food from a supermarket, all this obscure information was fascinating for me; that it came from the pen of a noted historian doubled the pleasure.
Edsa compiled a list of fish that could be preserved in salt, like daing, or prepared, like anchovies, into sardinas and arenques that were the daily sustenance of islanders. It was the first time I learned the scientific names of local fish: dilis or boqueron (Anchovia commersoniana, Lacepede); dumpilas (Anchovia dussumieri, Bleeker); tunsoy (Harengula moluccensis, Bleeker); tamban (H. longiceps, Bleeker); silinyasi (Harengula, sp.); alakaak (Umbrina Russelli, C.V.); aligasin (Mugilidae); talilong (Mugil sunanensis, Bleeker); sapsap (Leognathus splendens, Cuv); salaysalay (Scomber microlepidotus, Ruppell); and malakapas (Xystaema napas, Bleeker). He also listed some crustaceans: sea crab (Neptunus philippinensis); alimasag (Lupea gladiator, Fabr and Thalamita crucifera, Fr.); talangka (Thelphusa indica, Lath); uluhan (Palaemon ornatus, Oliv); hipon (Pendus canalicatus, Oliv); alupihan dagat (Squilla macularia, Lam). Last but not least: calamares and almejas; balay tikhan, lukan and paros.
Edsa provided a longer list of saltwater fish that cannot be accommodated in this column space, but he compared those with freshwater fish that were not as varied and were easier to harvest.
During the typhoon season, fishermen could not go out to sea but fish could still be found in the interior, like hito, dalag, and banak. Edsa said that freshwater or agua dulce (literally, sweet water) fish were lighter and sweeter than their saltwater cousins. He listed: anguila, dalag (Ophiocepahuls striatus Bloch), robalo or hito (Clarias magur, Ham.-Buc.), martinico, freshwater kitang (Setophagus ornatus, C.V.), different from saltwater kitang (Ephippidae), kanduli (Netuma nasata, Bleeker), bagre, iso, banak, gobido de Manila, and gobido de Angat (Glossogobius giuris, Ham. -Buch.), biang itim, bia, buan-buan, and langaray. He also mentioned river crabs and clams (tulya, sulib, pilipit and kuhol), etc.
So much useless information to remind the urban and land-dwelling 21st-century Pinoy of the influence of geography on Philippine life, history, and culture.
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