I packed my plate with freshly cooked steamed rice, got the Lady’s Choice peanut butter from the fridge…a popular brand that was the cornerstone of middle class opulence back then…put about three table spoonfuls of the sugar laced spread, mixed it up like a construction worker mixing cement and gravel, watched the rice turn into a brownish, yellow, sticky pile…all the while thinking to myself that this looked something more like on its way out rather than on its way in. But I was persistent.
I could see from the corner of my eye the glaring stares of my aunt, whom everyone regarded as Hitler…we all had one of those in the family, right? She had on a face of disgust but curious yet vindictive eyes waiting to release her spite on my first spoonful. I swear, scooping in my first mouthful onto the spoon, assisted by the fork, her eyes glaring, beads of cold sweat running down my forehead and getting that first morsel into my mouth was like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie.
Horrendous was an understatement! Peanut butter turned from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when combined with steamed rice. Anticipating my aunt’s rant and refusing to give her the satisfaction, I suppressed my disgust, fought my tastebuds to shut and forced my oesophagus to open up and take the hideous stuff in…hmmm yummy. My stomach churned but I had no choice but to finish the whole plate. I cursed Paksiw na Isda even more from then on.
This dish is my way of recovery and acquittal from hate and fear of the dreaded Paksiw na Isda. I thought hard of what I didn’t like about it and how I could elevate the flavour to my liking.
First, I didn’t like the fish that is commonly used for this dish, the bangus, a freshwater fish filled with tiny bones that would always get stuck in my throat for days. Its belly was rich and creamy but the white flesh is dry and tastes like paper. I love bangus when its boneless, butterflied, cured in vinegar and garlic, and fried, but never in a soupy dish.
Second, I didn’t like the fish poached in just ginger, garlic, vinegar and water. It lacked imagination…too functional…too pedestrian…yes I was a food Nazi even back then, there I claim it!
And third, I didn’t like how the vegetables are just thrown in with the fish until they wilt and become limp. The usual vegetables are ampalaya or bitter melon and eggplant which turn into a soggy mess that just slide right in, down the throat, round the stomach, roller coaster in the intestines and down the other end.
But the challenge is to still have the distinctive taste of the vinegar that is unmistakably paksiw yet a more sophisticated flavour that makes eating an experience rather than a function – first world problems, I know!
Choosing the ingredients, cooking method, contrasts and balance is key.
So here it is. My take on the paksiw na isda using sturgeon steaks, grilled vanilla-laced vegetables, and the crunch of a gremolata for texture. Perfect for weekend lunches.
Sturgeon steak ala paksiw (serves 4)
- Poached fish
- 4 sturgeon steak or hake or any firm white fleshed fish
- 1 cup fish stock
- 1-2 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Flat leaf parsley – about half a cup to 1 cup, chopped finely
- Garlic – half a clove
- Birdseye chilli – 2 or 3 depending on how spicy you want it
- Lemon rind – I used the whole lemon
- Anchovies – about 4 to 5 pieces
- Sage or thyme – about a tablespoon
- Butter – 2-3 tablespoons
- Grilled veges marinated in cilantro and vanilla or balsamic vinegar and truffle oil
- Eggplant (Lebanese) – about 3-4 medium sized pieces
- Okra – 10 – 12 pieces
- Large green chilli – 5 pieces
- Vanilla extract or balsamic vinegar – about a teaspoon
- Truffle oil – about 5 drops
- Cilantro leaves – about half a cup, chopped roughly
- Olive oil – about half a cup
- Prepare the gremolata
- Chop and combine all the gremolata ingredients, set aside
- Marinade the veges for grilling
- Cut the Lebanese eggplants lengthwise
- In a small mixing bowl combine the marinade
- Mix the veges with the marinade. Let stand for 15 – 30 minutes, longer is better to infuse the flavours of the marinade
- Cook the fish
- Fry the ginger and garlic until colour changed, careful not to over cook to avoid bitter after taste
- Stir in the fish sauce, stir for a minute
- Put the fish stock, let it reduce to about half a cup
- Stir in the vinegar, salt and pepper to taste
- Add the fish, simmer for about 10 minutes
- Cook the gremolata
- Fry the gremolata in butter until slightly crispy
- Put on top of the simmering fish in the last 2 minutes of the cooking process or leave until the end when serving for a crispier bite.
- Grill the veges
- Assemble the dish
Best served with steamed Jasmine rice or brown rice.
For those who are looking for the traditional way of cooking Paksiw na Isda and an overview of Filipino dishes across the main regions of the archipelago visit Jeanne Miraflor’s Paksiw na Bangus on Drift Stories.