Dried fish and the Pinoy palate

By Herman M. Lagon

The local markets of Iloilo are bustling hubs where culinary gems hide in plain sight, dried fish being one of the most prized. My routine walks through Terminal Market, Central Market, and Barotac Nuevo Market reveal rows of dried fish laid out almost 24-7, a sight both humble and profoundly integral to our daily life.

Dried fish, or as we fondly call it—bulad, pinakas, uga, daing, or tuyo, depending on the dialect—is a testament to Pinoy’s ingenuity in preservation. This method not only extends the shelf life of fish but also enhances its flavor, making it a beloved ingredient across the archipelago. Despite its association with the humble tables of the less affluent, dried fish transcends social and economic boundaries. All layers of society adore it for its savory crunch and versatility.

This humble dried fish commands a place of honor amidst our breakfast spread. It is often accompanied by sinangag or kalo-kalo (garlic fried rice), crunchy tomato, langgaw (spiced vinegar), a sunny-side-up egg, and hot coffee. Its flavor awakens the senses, the saltiness mingling perfectly with the mild bitterness of coffee or the tangy sweetness of local fruits.

Yet dried fish like galunggong (roundscad), tunsoy (herring), bisugo, danggit (rabbitfish), sapsap (ponyfish), matangbaka (bigeye), espada (beltfish), labahita (surgeonfish), salay-salay (finlet scad), tuloy (sardines) or dilis (anchovies) is not merely a meal component but a cultural marker, an edible emblem of our heritage. Across the provinces—from Iloilo to Cebu, from Pangasinan to Zamboanga—vast lands are dedicated to the drying bays, known locally as bilaran or buladan. Here, the fish basks under the sun, absorbing the essence of the local climate and transforming into the cherished uga or bulad.

The process of crafting dried fish is a dance with nature. Fishermen and producers immerse the catch in saline waters, a preliminary step that infuses each piece with a baseline of flavor. As the sun rises, the fish are laid out on bamboo mats or concrete floors, and the day’s warmth coaxes moisture away, leaving behind a product rich in texture and taste.

Despite my allergies to certain types of dried fish, my culinary adventures persist, especially in the northeastern and southwestern parts of Iloilo, where it is notably cheaper. Even in the northernmost part of Capiz and in the northeast part of Negros, I believe the allure of dried fish—especially my favorite varieties like tabagak, danggit, and dried pusit—remains irresistible.

Dried fish is not just food but a piece of our collective identity, shared across tables laden with stories and laughter. It finds its way into our dishes, whether as the star of the plate or a supporting character, adding depth to sauces and stews, making every meal more special.

For those unfamiliar, the initial encounter with dried fish can be striking—the intense aroma, the stark appearance. But to know it is to delve into the heart of our culinary tradition, to appreciate the craftsmanship and patience involved in its creation. It represents resilience, the ability to turn a perishable item into a long-lasting staple that nourishes and delights.

I connect deeply with my roots in these markets and through these flavors. Offering a plastic bag of pinakas or tabagak as a token of affection might seem peculiar elsewhere. Still, it speaks of childhood memories and distinct culinary experiences, an understanding that the simplest gifts are often the most profound.

This connection extends beyond personal preferences into commerce, where small-scale entrepreneurs, known locally as mga manug-uga, engage in the intricate dance of supply and demand. The market scenes are vibrant, punctuated by the calls of vendors and the discerning eyes of shoppers, each participant in the economy of dried fish playing a vital role in sustaining this culinary tradition.

The tradition of dried fish endures as the sun sets over Iloilo’s markets. Beyond its practical use, it connects us to our heritage, our ancestors’ customs, and how we have evolved through the years. Every piece honors our shared history and provides a familiar flavor of home, whether served at a formal dinner or a simple family meal. Between the rows of sun-cured fish is the beating heart of a community, teeming with the long-standing customs that provide for and characterize us.

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Doc H fondly describes himself as a ‘student of and for life’ who, like many others, aspires to a life-giving and why-driven world that is grounded in social justice and the pursuit of happiness. His views herewith do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.

reflect those of the institutions he is employed or connected with.

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