Very early in the life of this blog, I had a very poignant exchange of emails with a reader based in the Middle East. The jist of those emails was that the life of an Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) was tough, he had to seek work elsewhere to feed his family, and that he and his family would survive the often gut-wrenching experience, despite the challenges. But if there was one thing he wanted a taste of from home, it was some beloved tinapa (smoked fish). So his request at the time was for me to teach him how to do that somewhere in the middle of the desert. I didnâ€™t know how to make tinapa then and asking around provided some vague descriptions of the steps, but the next best thing I could suggest was for him to head to a delicatessen or food hall at an English Department Store with branches all over the Middle East, and ask them for some kippers, a smoked fish that if microwaved and served with vinegar, could substitute for our own tinapa rather nicely. To this day, I recall those emails and it is one of the primary reasons why I have such a soft spot for the millions of Filipinos who almost have no choice really but to toil wherever they are on the planet, on land and on sea. I have since received at least two dozen similar emails from all corners of the globe for a way to replicate the unique smoked taste of tinapa. So you can understand why I have wanted to track down someone who would be willing to show me the ropes, making tinapa from scratch, and last week I finally got my chanceâ€¦
I have been purchasing tinapang galunggong from Manang Nery Manalo at the FTI AANI Taguig Market for many years. Our crew at home love the tinapang galunggong and I have a fondness for the tinapang bangus that she sells. Every other week, we stock up on several kilos of goodies and she has always given me a very good price. I featured her name in about the second month of this blog, and that particular post has since gotten a tremendous amount of hits (several thousand page views) and brought Manang Nery several customers. Her daughter, a student, was even able to download the post and their family were thrilled to â€œseeâ€ themselves featured on the World Wide Web.
I have often asked Manang Nery if she would be kind enough to show me the ropes of tinapa making and she has always graciously offered to do so. But one thing always led to another and somehow we never got our schedules in sync until last week. Their manufacturing operations are located in Rosario, Cavite, a small old coastal town roughly 30 kilometers from Manila. We started off at about 6:30 a.m., and got there just before 8 a.mâ€¦after stopping several times to check on directions and calling Manang Nery for reassurance that we werenâ€™t lost. On the way there, we saw the historic home of Emilio Aguinaldo in Kawit, Cavite (why isnâ€™t it Cawit, Cavite or Kawit, Kavite???).
After greeting us roadside and helping us secure a parking space, we walked to the site of the tinapa production. Housed in the home of relatives of Manang Nery, when asked what name I should give the operation, they said to call it â€œBettyâ€™s Tinapahanâ€ though there were about 18 people working there and they were all related to each other, many of them members of the Torres family, in-laws, cousins, etc. A relatively modest sized lot at say 800 square meters, most of the area was used to dry fish. The first step in tinapa manufacturing starts with the fish. In this case, I will describe a start to finish procedure for galunggong, though they make many kinds of tinapa and daing. I have never seen this process detailed on the web/net, and frankly I will not give away too many details, so that Manang Nery doesnâ€™t bop me on the head, though she gave me clearance to observe the process in detail, take notes, interview the cooks, and ask extensive questions about the process.
Here I found out my first relatively shocking discoveryâ€¦ I would have figured that they were located near the coast in Cavite because the galunggong were landed on bancas straight at the factory, but it turns out we donâ€™t have enough consistent supply of locally caught galunngong anymore, so what many if not most tinapa makers today use is FLASH FROZEN galunggong imported from Taiwan and purchased in Manila! I suspect these are the catch of large fishing trawlers in the South China Sea, but still, Taiwanese fish???
The fish are then defrosted, rinsed and dried in the sun on rattan/reed mats for roughly an hour or two. Once they are ready (a touch and feel procedure done by the experts), they are plunged into a large kawa or kawali (pan) filled with water and about half a sack of sea salt. This enormous kawa is boiling romantically over wooden embers and the whole process is both primitive and utterly fascinating. Utterly fascinating. Cooked salt encrusts the kawa and it is a powerful food sight.
After some boiling in salt water, the fish are carefully removed and laid out on racks while they are still hot, taking care not to smush the fish while they are being arranged. These are then rinsed with fresh water before they are stacked and readied for the huge smokersâ€¦ The smokers are made of cement and look like huge ovens with a compartment below for the wood chips or shavings that are used to provide the smoke. Once the process gets going, it is like a fluid assembly line, constant boling of fish, arranging on racks, smoking, etc. This tinapahan uses hardwood shavings and with a bit of red ash from the fire under the kawa, they start a smoke alarm 9 fire in the smokers and shut the lids. They keep checking to make sure the fire hasnâ€™t died out but isnâ€™t too strong to burn the fish either and after a period of time, the fish are ready to be removed.
What emerges rom the smoker is a rack filled with characteristically burnished golden brown tinapa and the transformation from frozen fish to market ready tinapa takes maybe 4-6 hours total! Once the fish have had a chance to cool, they are packed into baskets and sold to dealers/traders who line up at the factory past lunch and who take them directly to neighborhood markets to be sold immediately. Oddly, tinapa doesn’t keep for more than a few days unless you freeze or refrigerate them.
I tasted the freshly smoked tinapa (fish), and it was superb!!! Still moist, but nicely smokey, and not overly saltyâ€¦ I should point out that this method of making tinapa (if it is similar across the Philippines) is a bit unusual when you compare it to traditional western hot or cold smoking methods that do not boil the fish first and instead rely on really long smoking to effectively cure the fish flesh and permeate it with a smokey flavor. I had a wonderful morning at â€œBettyâ€™sâ€ Tinapahan in Rosario, Cavite and I cannot thank them enough for sharing the way they make their tinapa. Oh, and to tie this post up, at least 3 of the men in the tinapahan had spent 2 to 10 years working in the Middle East and at least one said he was able to make a version of tinapa in Saudi Arabia so it isnâ€™t an impossible dreamâ€¦you just need to experiment. Use the oilier types of fish, boil with lots of salt, smoke the fish and fry it afterwardsâ€¦ Oh, and not only was everyone at the tinapahan so welcoming, they even provided a nice breakfast and coffee! Many, many thanks to Manang Nery and her husband, Rogelio who manned the fish boiling station, Rey who did the smoking and the wonderful ladies and gentlemen who toiled at everything else, they are in the first photo up top. A more detailed description of the entire morning is something I am saving in case I ever write a book…