Patis is perhaps the single most important ingredient in Filipino cooking. Or at least one of the top 5 ingredients, if one had to include rice, pork, salt (often replaced by Patis) and lard/vegetable fat and sugar. And yet, to be honest, I (and maybe most of you) don’t know much about it at all. Considering how much patis we use in our lifetime (over a 100 liters at least), you would think that most Filipinos would be extremely discriminating about this critical flavoring in so many of our dishes. Besides one or two large National brands, there doesn’t seem to be this incredible move towards artisanal and superior quality patis manufacturing, what when the vast majority of the public has become almost single-mindedly cost rather than quality conscious… At any rate, I usually buy whatever the cook wants, Rufina, Lorins or other bulk grocery purchase. And frankly, I find that it is usually too strong for my tastes… sometimes I find it “burns” my taste buds/throat when I have too much of it pure (without the addition of kalamansi or vinegar). For my own cooking, I tend to use Thai fish sauce (nam pla) or Vietnamese fish sauce (nuoc nam) when I can get them. Somehow I have this perception that the Thai and Vietnamese brands are “smoother” and less salty tasting…
But then again, I have no history and no expertise in patis manufacture. A little book research points to a relatively simple process of fermenting small fish (or shrimp), usually dilis (sometimes fish in the mackerel family) or other plentiful fish that travel in large schools, with a brine mixture of water and lots of salt. This is allowed to ferment naturally outdoors for up to 24 months (though much less for mass produced patis) until such point that that a protein called hydrosylate is formed. The pungent liquid is siphoned off and the first batch of liquid (the fish sauce equivalent of extra virgin olive oil from the first pressing of olives) is considered the finest quality fish sauce… That liquid is then “aged” in sunlight until it achieves the ideal amber or caramel color, aroma and taste. But lots of factors can subtly alter the quality of one’s patis – the fish you start with, the manner in which fermentation is undergone (vats, heat, etc.) and the care with which the first liquid is drawn off.
A little more research, yielded my little aha! moment for the day… According to my Harold McGee book called “On Food & Cooking,” there was a similar ingredient in Ancient Rome and thereabouts. Called “Garum,” this critical ingredient was actually a fermented fish sauce that Pliny described as “consist(ing) of the guts of fish and other parts…so that garum is the liquor of putrefecation.” Nice description, don’t you agree? The method for preparing this garum is very similar to our own patis. At any rate, it is incredibly interesting that this ingredient garum is mentioned in nearly every savory recipe in the famous cookbook attributed to Apicius who lived in the first century A.D. (the source of the name of Apicio, one of my favorite commenters on this blog)… most of this information from the McGee book, and some googling. It seems that sometime around the 16th century, the penchant for using this ingredient disappeared, and the closest similar product very much in use in the Mediterranean today are salted, but not fermented, anchovies… Cool, huh? Oh, does anyone know if they sell a modern translation of this Apicius cookbook?
But I want to take instruction from a patis expert or connoisseur; someone who can really explain the differences and pick out the “finest” patis. I want to have a pantry filled with different brands, or home made brews. Some that are particularly good for cooking certain dish and react well with fat and flame. Others that are best as dipping sauces. Still others that meld well with kalamansi or chilli. But I wouldn’t know where to even begin looking. And I have a very funny feeling that seeing the process of patis manufacturing could seriously gross me out. What brought on this interest? I was at the Tiendesitas Mall this afternoon stocking up on Batuan puree (the subject of an upcoming post), and I came across a store in the Native Delicacies section selling products from Malabon. This clear recycled Tanduay glass bottle was filled with Patis with an incredible amber color. The lady manning ths stall urged me to try the patis, and even uncapped the bottle for me to smell. It did in fact smell very good; smoother, less raw salt and oddly, without salt crusts forming at the bottle opening. The vendor vouched for the patis, something her neighbor made in Malabon from a decades old tradition of manufacturing in small batches. They had no labels, no ingredients list, no contact numbers in case I keeled over from food poisoning. She assured me that she didn’t think anyone else carried this patis outside of Malabon. And the verdict? It’s pretty darn good. Not sure it’s the best I have had, but it is noticeably better than the mass produced grocery brands. And at just PHP50 for this large ex-Tanduay bottle, I thought it was cheap. I took out the Lorins that is the standard patis in the kitchen and checked the ingredients list: round scad (mackerel) fish extract, iodized salt (no wonder it has a strange chemical hint), caramel (that seems like cheating to me) and potassium sorbate. The Thai fish sauce I use is extremely smooth and it lists ingredients as Anchovies 65%, salt 30% and sugar 5%.
So this homemade patis discovery has piqued my interest… I would really like to try more artisanal and different types of patis in the future. How about you guys? Do you think the patis makes a big difference in what you cook or eat? And what is your favorite brand or source of the finest patis? Are there dramatic differences between patis from particular provinces?