Saturday, April 15, 2017

Labahita Bacalao a la Ciudad de Cavite

This is the first time we spent Lent in Cavite that I dropped by the public market during Holy Week. And so it was my first time, after living here for exactly ten years, to see the tumpok of fleshy daing na labahita (salted, sun-dried surgeon fish or unicorn fish) fronting almost every other stall, perfuming the blistery air with their briny scent.

I have an aversion to any fleshy salted dried fish, borne by my having grown up in Pangasinan, a coastal province crisscrossed by rivers, so that there was fresh seafood every day. The only dried salted fish we ate was what we called tuyo, named tunsoy elsewhere in the Philippines, which is a kind of herring that is properly so salty it needs mounds of rice to eat with, but is emaciatedly flat that the flesh is paper thin.

Come to think of it, a visit to the dried seafood stores in Pangasinan would yield mostly emaciated daing - mainly espada (called pingka locally), pusit, dilis. Even tilapia and bangus, and basasong (kalaso), are butterflied before being marinated and sun-dried.

My father once came home with a crate brimming with thickly fleshy dried salted fish after spending a month in Palawan during the early eighties. My mother didn't know what to do with it - she tried frying some, but they were so salty we were gagging on our first bite. I don't know what happened to that crate, it was given away most probably, but possibly thrown away.

Now I know those fish would have been good in ginataan - but in Pangasinan we didn't cook savory dishes with gata, because it is associated with sweet kakanin; or used to flavor vegetable stew - but we have our beloved bagoong for that; or maybe just soaked in water and cooked like any other fish - but we have enough saltiness in our Pangasinense lives.

And so dried, salted labahita did not excite me. Especially since I find the fresh fish somewhat malansa. I just found it curious that there were a lot of them being sold, when I rarely come across the fish, fresh, in my weekend market forays. Of course I made the connection right away, concluding it is a Lent thing in Cavite, and mentioned it to my suki vegetable vendor, who also had labahita among the bilaos of tomatoes and mustard greens and kangkong.

The suki confirmed that labahita is traditional Lent fare in Cavite City, and is cooked bacalao style. Sonny Lua of the legendary but now defunct* eating institution Asiong's Carinderia once mentioned to me and a friend that he makes a mean bacalao. He had left before we could sample it, but now I realize he must be talking about this bacalao, not made with (imported) cod, but with the abundant local labahita.

The suki offered  the daing, and I thought why not. The prospect of cooking bacalao had me, daing aversion or not. And as can be gleaned from the many posts in this blog, I am never one to back out from trying out the local tradition. So  I asked the suki how Cavite cooks its bacalao. I was told just like menudo, with diced potatoes, carrots, garbanzos (chickpeas), bell peppers and cabbage. I asked if it is with tomatoes, just like the original version, and even the menudo, but I was surprised to learn that Cavitenos don't like the taste of tomatoes in bacalao, so no tomatoes or tomato sauce is added.

I said that it is summer, and tomatoes are dirt cheap, and are good with fresh fish. Besides they would do well to counteract the saltiness of the daing. But no, I was admonished, the daing is soaked in water to remove the saltiness, so there is no need to mix in tomatoes. Alright, alright, so I bought a kilo (at P90 per half a kilo), planning to cook half of it without tomatoes, and the other half with tomatoes.

Once I was done with my purchases, the suki took me to the back of the stall to show me a big plastic bag full of bacalao, for lunch and dinner that day, and offered a taste so that I would know how it is like. I had stopped carrying a camera to the market because I have hundreds of food photos I haven't been able to use, but there are many days I deeply regret not being able to record something so compelling. This was one of those days.

I quickly got over the regret, though, and planned to recreate the dish, instead. It was appetizingly yellow, with the addition of atsuete (strained annatto seeds). I was thinking maybe the original dish from which this was based had saffron, of which I had some in my pantry cabinet from a trip to the UAE - I didn't doubt for a second that the Cavite bacalao had Spanish roots, because I've been hearing the fishmongers talk to their customers in pidgin Spanish for years now that it doesn't jolt me anymore - but does not fit into the Lent scheme of things for being so expensive and all. And besides, the lemony hue made me crave for yellow curry, of which I have lots in stock, too.

And it seems I don't know how menudo is cooked Cavite style, because the menudo I know has all ingredients, including the pork and liver, diced, with tomato sauce. The bacalao I ate at the market looked like tuna flakes stir-fried in vegetables, like how it is sometimes served for breakfast at the office canteen. Comfort food during rainy days. On the way home I thought this doesn't augur well for Lenten fasting, what with the salty fish and all needing rice. Lots of it.


I've bought daing in other places, and I've been told an hour's soaking is enough.  My suki at the Cavite market instructed that the labahita be soaked for 1 1/2 hours. I went for two, but while I was stripping and shredding the flesh my son tried a bite, and said it was very salty. I already said I had an aversion to salty fish, hadn't I? I promptly put the shredded fish in a pan full of water and brought it to a brisk boil for several minutes, straining the water afterwards. I stir-fried the lot with a full head of garlic and lots of sliced onions, some biryani and turmeric powder for color, and added the diced vegetables, cooking everything in two cups of water until soft.

I'm afraid I overdid the shredding, or maybe it was too much boiling, which resulted to the fish becoming too mushy. The kids think it's still a bit salty, but I already found comfort in it, even in the midst of all the sultry heat. I'm sure it would be good for Black Saturday, too, reheated, or maybe mixed in scrambled eggs, to go with pan de sal and tsokolate for breakfast. I know, I know - it is luxurious, and does not define Lent eating, at all, but at least I haven't said anything about rice, which still passes for not having a full meal. Oh well, my index fingers and thumbs on both hands ache painfully from all the shredding, not to mention the smell that won't go away. I think it's penance enough.


*As reported by the staff at Bernie's Kitchenette, which serves the same fare as Asiong's, Sonny Lua has transferred to Silang, Cavite, and has set up Asiong's in that town. I haven't verified it, though.

**After a cursory search in the internet I found that the Philippine Daily Inquirer published some years ago a bacalao recipe with tomatoes, also for Lent.


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Cups of Comfort
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Papait
Unda-Unday
Bihod
Larak tan Ganuza

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