They call these small, 8-12 inch saltwater eels “bakasi” throughout the island of Cebu. They are particularly abundant near the town of Cordova, in the Southern part of the island, where they even have an annual festival in August to celebrate this local “delicacy.” I have never eaten them before, or even seen them in markets for sale alive. So when I ran into them in droves at the Bogo market, I was certainly intrigued. All I knew for sure was that they were eels, they were caught in the sea, and that the locals cooked and ate them. But there was a part of me that was hoping these weren’t baby moray eels. I had seen far too many enormous moray eels for sale at the Pasil market just days before, and while I understand that moray eels are not endangered and are a good source of protein, I felt they should be spared from being eaten… why morays and not lapu-lapu or talakitoks, I can’t explain, nor am I being rational about it, I agree… Plus to complicate logic, I have eaten angullas in olive oil and garlic, a Spanish delicacy, and I also love unagi, that japanese eel with a sweetish sugar and soy sauce, so what is the big deal, anyway?
Back home, I did some basic research as I always do when writing about something new, and sometimes, the cursory review of my reference books and internet sources means I spend a few minutes on a topic before writing a brief post. But occasionally, I sink deeper and deeper into an abyss and realize how little I know, and it gets so frustrating trying to find out more about a topic! After nearly 3 hours of research, I learned the following: there are over 100 species of moray eels (family murarenidae) in the earth’s seas, and in the Philippines, we may have over 40 species of Moray eels. They range in size as adults from small to frighteningly humongous, and unlike the vivid memory I have of Jaqueline Bisset, the actress, sporting a fabulous bikini, being attacked by a moray in the movie “The Deep,” moray eels are generally very placid citizens of the deep, not vicious piranha-like human eating monsters (actually, piranhas mostly attack cattle and other four legged animals and not humans, either). Some websites claim morays are poisonous and that they are inedible, yet I know for a fact that many locals eat moray eels in all sorts of dishes, and they don’t keel over soon afterwards. King Henry I of England was said to have died in 1135 after severe indigestion after eating a moray eel, see link here (this is a FASCINATING link). So what the heck is this bakasi? A baby eel, referred to as an ELVER, I just learned, or a full grown eel of some sort?
The whole baby eel/elver aspect of this inquiry led me down the path of how morays mate and have babies/eggs/offspring/descendants. Fascinating stuff sourced from several internet sites, but stated in my words… Adult morays can and often do change sexes. Cool, huh? But they can’t have sex with themselves and have babies afterwards, silly. Actually, many adult males often turn into females in their old age. There are scientific terms for all of these situations but let’s keep this light, shall we? Even more bizarre, some eels can possess both the private parts of a male and a female, simultaneously… now are you confused? The shortcut description of an hour or so of research/reading is this: large male moray(s) and large female morays open their mouths wide and bare their fangs and kiss each other, then they snuggle their bodies up tight together for several hours (and sometimes the female has two smaller males at the SAME time) and soon after, the female releases thousands of fertilized eggs to float in the ocean. The eggs hatch and these tiny live eel larvae or whatever they are called float near the ocean’s surface, hoping to statistically avoid being eaten by predators, or just humans who innocently swallow some sea water with eel larvae, and many months later they find a nice rock or stone or cave to hide under and grow into bigger eels. Obviously, that didn’t answer my question on whether bakasi are baby eels or not… but just as I was going to give up…
I found this incredible site that appears to clearly identify the bakasi as indeed a member of the muraenidae family (moray eels), but more specifically, as a species known as “Richardson’s Moray” (gymnothorax richardsoni) that according to my book on Marine Fishes of South East Asia by Gerry Allen, and I quote: “Inhabits coral reef crevices; a small speckled eel that is frequently found under rocks on shallow reef flats often in weedy areas; throughout S. E. Asia.” It also states that the adult length is only 30 centimeters or twelve inches. Bingo! These are not baby morays at all, they are small adult morays! And here are more photos from the fishbase website.
So I would conclude that these are a type of moray eel, that at full size measure roughly a foot long. They are happiest in rocky shallow waters, such as several coastal areas on the island of Cebu. They make babies by the thousands. And are food for many. Okay, so how do folks eat these eels? I am told the eels are superb cooked in the paksiw style or stewed with vinegar and salt. They are also cooked in tinowa, a vegetable and seafood soup. They can also be sauteed with fish sauce and or black beans. I will definitely have to try these the next time I get a chance. Phew, this post took a LOT longer to write than I thought it would! This final photo above, if of the EEL LADY at the market, who took immense pleasure in lifting up her live eels for buyers and Marketman in particular. She was so frisky that the eels splattered my camera with water and many of my succeeding photos had huge blurry patches from the liquid on the lens! :)