My father was a HUGE fan of guinamos, all manner of small fish (sometimes shrimp), mixed with salt, and allowed to rot to the desired level of pungency. It was the color of death, and death in a bad way, or at least I always thought so as a squeamish kid, but was smart enough to never say it out loud. It sounds like a horrific process, the slow decay and disintegration of a fish in salt, not to mention the naturally gray color… I believe what you don’t see made, bothers you less… and this supports my personal theory why almost everyone loves patis and that less than 5-10% of the readers of this blog have seen it made, which can sometimes make one’s stomach turn inside out… But my recent post on small fish with beady eyes, which I also think are anchovy fry, set off a lively discussion in Mrs. MM’s Cebu office and one of her crew mentioned that he had a “tita” that made a fantastic guinamos sinabado… and like magic, a week later, while I was in Cebu, this small but incredibly pungent container of the stuff showed up on my desk at the office in Cebu, made just a day or two before…
I must say, the first whiff of this sinabado was not one of love… it reeked! And in an unappetizing way. Older guinamos have had time to mellow and the smell is less vivid, the taste more salty and less fishy. Nevertheless, I had to take this on a plane as baggage, so I had the guinamos re-packed into 12 oz jam jars and covered with plastic and sealed for the ride to Manila. The reason it is called sinabado is that it last from Saturday to Saturday, or roughly a week of fermentation and you should have pretty much consumed all of it in that time. And it is left out on the kitchen counter, not stuck in a refrigerator. I am convinced this is one of our most basic local dishes, and its use probably anti-dates the shard of a 500+ year old blue and white ceramic plate from China (in top photo) dug up from someone’s grave. Folks then caught lots of fish, and kept any excess in a clay jar or jug and figured out salt would help preserve it and extend its life. Then they ate it with whatever starch they had access to such as rice, bananas or root crops.
I associate guinamos most with blanched pili fruit; since my lolo was from Bicol and my lola was from Lapu-Lapu, my dad would enjoy his pili fruit dipped in guinamos. At the time, I felt the guinamos was the lesser of two evils, but today I can completely understand the wonderful pairing between the fibrous flavorful pili fruit flesh with the briny fish sauce. Mrs. MM, on the other hand, associates guinamos with sneaking into the back of the house and swiping guinamos from her yaya who enjoyed it with rice and a vegetable soup. A day after I got back to Manila, I opened one of the bottles of guinamos to a slight pop of pressure, it seems the fermentation of the fish was giving off gasses and the contents had seemingly “grown” in the 12 hours of confinement. We decided to try two different sawsawan. The first, a mixture of guinamos (several pungent tablespoons worth) with chilli vinegar and chopped siling labuyo or bird’s eye chillies. The second sauce we made was guinamos with chopped tomatoes, onions and the juice of several kalamansi. Both were wonderful. The acid from the vinegar and the kalamansi neutralized the raw flavor of fermenting fish and resulted in a sauce that was much better than the sum of its parts. Delicious with some steamed rice or even boiled corn or linupak or unripe saba bananas. Ah, the things we love to eat… Many thanks to Randy’s tita who sent this fantastic guinamos!