The house is awash with tamarind puree. That’s what happens when something seasonal hits its peak and I get so excited to have the ingredient, that I stock up as though next year would never come… So while at the office in Manila the other day, our Caviteña accountant asked if I had ever tried pinangat na bangus made with ripe but sour tamarind. I hadn’t, and based on her quick description, I headed to the kitchen as soon as I got home and tried to make the dish on my own without a recipe. It isn’t as authentic as it could be (probably doesn’t have young garlic and would be better made in a palayok) but this turned out BRILLIANTLY for the minimal amount of effort required. I bet 90% of marketmanila readers could do this and the flavors would be so familiar for them to wonder why they had never cooked or tasted it before. Think a variation of paksiw na isda, but with a far more sophisticated sour than bottled (and in most households, horrific tasting) vinegar used for most paksiw. This is humble home cooking, but just a few tweaks would definitely elevate this dish to restaurant worthy special.
You will need either whole de-boned bangus, sliced into steaks, or if you are simply reaching into your freezer for the easiest option, then bangus bellies like I have here. You will need a big handful of fresh ripe sour and peeled local sampalok. I happened to have sweetened sampalok puree so I was determined to use this. Salt. Some folks use ginger, onions, garlic. But I am told others eschew the use of the last three and rely purely on the salt and tamarind to work their magic. I thought a touch of homemade lard couldn’t hurt, and our accountant suggested a touch of soy sauce near the end for both color and flavor, just as the dish was “drying out” as they preferred it served closer to a dry consistency than saucy.
First, make a light broth from the tamarind, water and salt. Strain this through a sieve. Into a pan, add the bangus segments, the tamarind water, some tamarind puree if you have it (or more concentrated tamarind water and a touch of brown sugar), salt, pepper and young garlic. That’s what I did. Alternatively you could melt lard, saute the ginger and onions and garlic, lay the fish on top, add the tamarind broth and continue cooking. I added the lard last as I nearly forgot to put it.
Cover and let this come to a boil and simmer for say 15-20 minutes or so. Apparently the goal is to get the fish to absorb all that sour goodness without it disintegrating, so don’t move the fish around too much. Also, some folks like this drier and that’s what my goal was as well. Notice how the water, tamarind and lard guile into an almost emulsified sauce that coats the bangus pieces, I really liked that effect.
Halfway through cooking, I was worried that the flavor might not permeate all the fish, so I carefully flipped them over. In retrospect, you might start off this way and flip them the other way around so the skin crisps up a bit in the minimal fat in the pan when you are nearly done cooking. Add some soy sauce and season with salt to get the right level of saltiness to your liking nearing the end of cooking. I pulled this off the heat just as most of the liquid had evaporated. Think of this as a variation on paksiw, or acid braised fish, so essential in the times with no refrigeration and it could sit out for hours without spoiling.
The result? For minimal effort and no reference point? Was nothing short of WOW, just WOW! And there are so many ways to enhance this, refry it, serve it saucy, etc. Totally instant comfort food. So worth trying. And so seasonal if you are using fresh tamarind…