Although much has been compromised to progress and exigency, my little town has managed to keep most of its traditions in place, if not intact. The river may have dried up and turned into a garbage dump, but we hold on to our riverine traditions by holding the pagoda on the streets using motorized floats instead of boats. The brass bands have either disappeared or have become too costly, so we now used loudspeakers to blare out the catchy Pandango music. The route of the procession may change every year, but the people managed to follow where the music and the dancing are.
I have dealt extensively on the customs and traditions that make our fiesta unique and enduring through the years. So for this series of posts, I will try to concentrate instead on the fiesta food that made these annual feasts worth the wait and anticipation. I remember that my mother and her father would prepare food for our guests using big kawalis, talyases and kalderos over wood-fired cooking pits in our backyard. When my eldest brother married, my sister-in-law joined the kitchen crew in whipping up these delectable dishes. These foods trace their progeny from the rich culinary traditions of Marikina, Pasig, Taguig and Pateros. They have strong influences of both Spanish and Chinese cuisine, while the desserts are mainly indigenous.
The irony is that I was not taught how to cook at home. Growing up in big household, I was always on the receiving end when it comes to meals. I first experimented with cooking when I started cooking sauteed sardines for our midnight snacks back when hot pandesal was the craze. When I went to a boy scout camping when I was 14, I cooked my first tinolang manok based on my recollection of how it was prepared at home. Using my recollection of home-cooked meals, I started my passionate love affair with the kitchen when I lived on my own in Baguio City during college. I remember the incredulous reaction of my Nanay when she tasted my Chicken Afritada for the first time. From then on, Nanay relinquished the kitchen to me. My posts, therefore, are recollections of my personal experiences with these foods in our home. They are not meant to present recipes and culinary secrets, but hopefully, by keeping their memories alive we can keep them in our kitchens as living testaments to our great culinary traditions.
Since my town is famous for its riverine traditions, let me start this series with fish-based dishes.
When it comes to the bounty of the sea (or the river, or the lake, or the fishpond, or whatever...), there are three dishes, called “putahe”, that I remember from our family spread during fiestas. These are the steamed fish with mayonnaise and vegetable dressing, fried fish with sweet and sour sauce (also called "escabeche")and my favorite rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish).
Steamed Fish with Mayonnaise
There are many varieties of fish that can be steamed, but the bigger ones such as Apahap and Talakitok are preferred as fiesta fare. This dish has to look grand on the table, and they are usually presented on a big dish called “bandehado”. The fish itself is steamed without much seasoning, perhaps only a dash of salt and pepper. However, some prefer to steam the fish with ginger and onion leaves for a more tangy taste. But the secret really is on the garnish.
Garnishing may include finely chopped hard-boiled egg, pickles, bell pepper and carrots. The steamed fish is laid out on the bandehado and smothered with mayonnaise. Then, the garnishing will be artistically sprinkled on top of the mayonnaise-covered fish separately in alternating stripes, or any design. The designs are limited only by your creativity, so let the fish be your canvass. Tastes good as it looks good!
When it comes to Escabeche or Sweet and Sour Fish, the preferred variety is the Lapu-lapu. Its tender and delicious meat is ideal for this dish of Chinese progeny. The ideal size of the fish is about 1kg in weight, which is fried whole until the outside is crispy and the inside still juicy (think of Chickenjoy...). The sweet and sour sauce is prepared separately by combining tomato sauce, vinegar, sugar and salt (or soy sauce) in a sauce pan over slow fire. In some cases, I would put in pineapple juice and chunks for variety. Garnishing would include onions, bell pepper, carrot, spring onion leaves and ginger. The sauce is poured over the fried fish just before being served so the sweet tangy taste of the sauce will complement the contrasting crispiness and juiciness of the fish.
However, preparing the sauce need a deft hand and perfect timing, as the improper use of vinegar can spell disaster on the brew. If not done properly, the sourness induced by the vinegar can be too strong for comfort ("buhay ang suka", as the old folks would say) . A perfect sweet and sour sauce should have your tongue alternately savoring the sweet, sour, tangy and salty flavors playing on your mouth as you chew on the crunchy fish meat. And a word of caution: it is a mortal sin to use catsup instead of tomato sauce. It’s like using catsup for Italian pasta. If you want an all-natural recipe, then fresh tomatoes cooked long enough to attain the consistency of tomato sauce can be used as an alternative. No short-cuts for this dish!
One of my favorite fiesta dishes is the Rellenong Bangus. Although it is very convenient, and deliciously satisfying to eat, the preparation involved is very tedious. The fish needs to be prepared carefully, with the meat separated from the skin without damaging it. The whole skin is marinated using soy sauce and calamansi to give it a distinctive flavor. Then the meat is boiled, deboned, flaked and then sauteed with green peas, carrot, bell pepper, onions and garlic. For variation, potato and raisins are added to the mixture. The mixture is then stuffed into the marinated skin and sewed up. The stuffed fish is wrapped in banana leaf and then fried in a big “kawali”. The relleno is then served on a bandehado with garnishes of sliced tomato, native lettuce and onions. This time, feel free to indulge in catsup as it is the preferred condiment for this very Filipino dish.
We'll explore more fiesta fare on the next installments of this series. Kain na po!