Perhaps my favorite food discovery in Bantayan were these dried fish skins, sold in plastic packets in 5-6 sheets, pricey, smelly and rather scarce that I nearly completely missed them until our GM pointed them out. I have enjoyed and even featured fried fish skin before (salmon), but I always thought you started with a fresh, supple fish skin, never did I imagine you could dry the fish skin, then puff them right back up by frying them!
This particular packet contained colorful dried skins of parrotfish or mol mol, and I was so fascinated by how they not only skinned the fish so cleanly, but how they were dried so flat and uniformly. The edges were uneven and shaped like you would expect from a fish, but several pieces were nearly beautifully cut into perfect rectangles. Seasoned with salt, and ailing labuyo, they smelled gawdawful when you open up the packets, but transform in a pool of hot fat.
Back in Cebu City, I immediately heat up a pan with some lard, then cut the dried sheets of fish skin into smaller pieces and fried them up. They didn’t take more than a few seconds, and we burned a couple in fact, so it was just like frying up kopeck or shrimp crackers. The results? AMAZING. I kid you not. I was hooked from the first bite. What’s not to like I guess? A very crisp, tasty morsel — the sea’s challenge to land based chicharon. Wonderful. And dipped into a vinegar sawsawan or sauce, fantastic!
It’s unique, humble but incredible local products like these that chefs in Manila should be seeking out and featuring in their snazzy menus, rather than the proliferation of European and American sourced ingredients. I so want to have a steady supply of this ingredient to use somehow at our own restaurants! And trust me, we are TRYING to arrange that if at all possible!
I like the fried dried fish skin so much I immediately called some other colleagues still in Bantayan and asked them to buy up PHP1,000 worth of the skins, which you could easily carry with one small hand! Perhaps it’s too pricey to enjoy like you might a bag of potato chips, but as a garnish for a fish dish, or a morsel to nibble on before a main course, it would be a great ingredient to feature.
And the variety of skins was interesting as well. Clearly, the base fish drives the type or character of the skin. But all of the ones we tried fried up quickly and to a really nice shattering crispness. I am thinking an appetizer plate with three kinds of skin — chicharon, deep-fried chicken skins, and fish skins. Deadly, but deadly good. :)