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Excellent ‘pampano,’ fried trout—and why Pinoys should prefer wild fish

For years I’ve been feasting on suckling pig and Peking duck in Chinese restaurants, ignoring the seafood that comes toward the end of the meal. In a Chinese banquet, the arrival of the crabs is usually cause for celebration, because it means it’s nearly time to go home.

But since I’ve also grown in girth, I’ve begun to appreciate the subtleties of the fish course. I learned how to go to the market and buy a live lapu-lapu and prepare it for steaming: one lengthwise cut on the underside, two horizontal cuts on top, then the usual garnishes.

The tricky part is steaming it. If you open the bamboo steamer just half a minute too soon, you get sashimi near the bone. Just a few seconds over and the fish is tough and chewy.

I went through many fish trying to correlate weight to the number of minutes and how much steam was coming out, and even tried to stick a thermometer probe between the slats of the bamboo. Someone taught me a cool trick—use a glass lid and you can eyeball it.

My appreciation of the subtler tastes of creatures of the deep did not mean that I have lost my appetite for the roasted, fatty parts of the banquet. This is what it means to be middle-age, I guess. I just keep eating all throughout the meal.

And I would have been very happy eating my live lapu-lapu, already a treat in itself, if a friend hadn’t introduced me to a man we shall call Mr. Tim.

6 fish dishes

Mr. Tim said that I needed to level up my game when it came to fish, and that he would teach me about fresh fish. He also hinted that I might be able to eat the mysterious, prize fish called “red pakwan”—if you Google it, you’ll get pictures of watermelons, so I will save you the trouble and explain that it’s not actually bright red, but that its spots look like watermelon seeds.

Alas, because the wild fish supply is at the mercy of tides and fishermen, there were no red pakwan that night.

What we had instead were red coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) and pampano, or pomfret—a mix of the wild and farmed kind.

The venue for the tasting was Hai Shin Lou, which I had recommended in this space, and continue to do so. We ended up with six fish dishes, plus mantis fried in salted egg yolk, and a slice of pork asado, which means you might never have to make the trek to Cosmos restaurant in Chinatown again.

At the outset, it was clear that the difference between wild fish and the usual live lapu-lapu we get is like night and day. Mr. Tim told us what to look for: flesh that was firm but would melt in your mouth, an absence of red veins in the flesh, no astringent aftertaste in the mouth.

I think I probably had the same expression on my face like that of my non-audiophile friends, when I sit them down and tell them to listen for the way the blackness between notes is distinctly different when I swap the coupling capacitor to a silver-gold in oil.

Subtle

The difference between a wild fish, though, and what Mr. Tim described as a well-farmed fish, was more subtle. At this point in my fish-eating experience, I would honestly not be able to taste the difference.

The pampano cooked with tauso—a crisp fried soy derivative made famous by Mr. Poon’s, and not to be confused with tausi—was excellent, and competed with the hotpot made with fried trout as the standout dish of the evening.

The trout, incidentally, is locally known as suno, specifically as “oblong”—because the spots are oblong rather than round. It sells for P2,000 to P4,000 a kilo, depending on the availability and, more importantly, the demand. Prices are high now because Chinese New Year is approaching.

I asked about sustainability. The answer was, well, it depends. If everyone were to demand wild fish or there was a gold rush for it (China is demanding more and more to feed its tables, driving prices sky-high), it would be extremely bad—the overfishing that is taking place would spike and the seas would empty out.

And if things keep going the way they are, not only would we not have fish to sell to China. In the first place, China wouldn’t have to buy fish from us since it would have annexed the sea to the west of the country.

In the short term, however, a sustainable fish is a farmed fish. It’s just not a very good fish, most of the time.

The long-term, best-case scenario would be clear-sighted and future-oriented regulation that is strictly enforced: no dynamite or cyanide fishing, young fish returned to the sea, and a fishing season that allows the schools to replenish themselves.

At the same time, get people interested in wild fish so that the demand for them increases, and they become more accessible to the mainstream population and not just to taipans and high-rollers.

And that’s where the parallel between high-end audio breaks down: While leaps in science and technology have made high-end sound affordable, the absolute pinnacle of audio replay gets pushed further and further and, like a limited-edition Daytona, becomes valuable because it’s inaccessible.

We don’t want that. We prefer something that had been the birthright of Filipinos—having access to really fresh, non-farmed fish—to become something that everyone can enjoy again.

If fish must be farmed, let them be properly farmed and not taste of mud and gunk. I’m sure that this issue is more complex and there are many more factors to consider.

But after tasting the real deal, I will always compare the already expensive farmed lapu-lapu with the clean, clear taste of wild trout. In the same way that clean air and clean water must not be a luxury, the fresh taste of fish must be something everyone gets to enjoy. —CONTRIBUTED

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