Rizal cooks fish | Inquirer Opinion
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Rizal cooks fish

Vicente Emmanuel Paterno of Mandaluyong e-mailed comments on my last column on Epifanio de los Santos’ lecture on the fishing industry in the Philippines up to 1921 (“Something fishy for Friday,” 3/18/15). It takes history to provide perspective to the present, and Mr. Paterno said many of the fish listed by De los Santos that were not familiar to me have long disappeared from our tables and our memories because of the overfishing that comes with the demand of a ceaselessly growing population.

Paterno wrote:


“One of the biggest lies peddled by the educational system is that the country is rich in marine resources given the size and breadth of our maritime territory. Truth be told, only a small part of our maritime territory is truly productive, possibly less than 5 percent if the 200-mile zones were counted. The most productive areas are the Northern Palawan Shelf (the Cuyo and Calamianes Islands), the Jolo Shelf and the Visayan Sea. The rest of the maritime territory are of lesser productivity as they are more than 200 meters deep. Most of the Philippine islands have very narrow insular shelves to begin with. Today, our food security is threatened by overfishing, and we are now importing our basic food requirements: rice and fish.”

In his lecture, De los Santos said freshwater fish were not as varied as their saltwater cousins. Freshwater fish were easier to catch and were available even during the storm seasons when saltwater fish were not to be had because fishermen did not go out to sea. This is when hito, dalag and banak filled the gap in supply. People of good taste were able to tell the difference between fish from the sea and those not because those from “agua dulce” (literally, “sweet water”) had lighter and sweeter meat. These are:


Anguila, dalag (Ophiocepahuls striatus, Bloch), robalo (hito), (Clarias magur, Ham.-Buc.), martinico, kitang (Setophagus ornatus, C.V.) which was 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.

Aside from those freshwater fish there were: cangrejos de rio (river crabs), cocomo, langostino uluhan, as well as almejas del rio (river shellfish) like tulya and sulib, pilipit and kuhol and the famous igat (Jenkinsiella nectura Jordan).

Aside from the fish nurseries that developed from Malabon in the 19th century, De los Santos mentioned an anchovy (anchoa) industry in Abra that used fish similar to the dulong of Cavite. Trepang or sea cucumber was harvested purely for export to China and were known as cohombro, culebra del mar, or balate.

Finally we have a list of crustaceans: sea crabs (Neptunus philippinensis), alimasag (Lupea gladiator, Fabr and Thalamita crucifera, Fr.), talangka (Thelphusa indica, Lath), uluhan (Palaemon ornatus, Oliv), hipon (Pendus canalicatus, Oliv), and alupihan dagat (Squilla macularia, Lam.). Last but not least were calamar and almejas: balay tikhan, lukan and paros.

De los Santos also cited the famous passage from Chapter 23 of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” that not only gives the names of fish but the ways in which these were to be cooked. Those who used the early-20th-century Derbyshire translation from the original Spanish in school or online will not know about this because Derbyshire deleted some of the more interesting passages thatdescribe life in those times.

Most students only remember Ibarra, Maria Clara, their barkada and chaperones going out on a picnic to find a crocodile in the fish pen. If you read the chapter closely, you will see that the young people on excursion set out onbancas carrying musical instruments—harps, guitars, accordion and carabao horn—and parlor games to amuse themselves during the day. They make comfortable seating for the women in the bancas using carpets, rugs, tapestries and cushions.

On one boat a clay stove burns, providing tea, coffee and salabat, very much the way we have percolators and flowing coffee today. Capitana Tica says salabat taken early in the morning before Mass is good, and Albino says salabat is best paired with rice cake. Sinang says coffee is best taken first to induce happy thoughts, while Tia Isabel warns that tea is better than coffee to soothe thoughts. Tea is best paired with galletas. Then someone mentions chocolate as a hot morning beverage.


Andeng, foster sister of Maria Clara, who has a reputation as a good cook, prepares to stew the fish that will be caught from the pen and dropped live in a boiling broth of rice water, tomatoes, and kamias. The others prepare squash vine tendrils and snow peas and cut the paayap into short pieces the length of cigarettes. Further into the chapter, Tia Isabel takes charge and says:

“Ayungin is good for sinigang, leave the bia for the escabeche, and the dalag and buan-buan for pesa. The dalag lives long, put it in the net so it remains in the water. Lobsters to the frying pan!

Banak is good for broiling wrapped in banana leaves stuffed with tomatoes.”

It is too bad that the only food we remember from Rizal’s novels is the tinolang manok from the “Noli” because there are many references to food in both novels that suggest he knew how to cook, or at least knew how he wanted his fish done.

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Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: epifanio de los santos, fish, Fishing industry, Jose Rizal, Noli Me Tangere
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