Traditional talibubu of ayungin fish in coconut milk and alagaw leaves (Illustration by Chris Clemente)
Food & Drink Features

The Talibubu of Taytay: an old fish dish gets a new lease in life with tilapia

Awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2019 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award, the writer marvels at her husband’s way with traditional talibubu from Taytay, using modern day tilapia to replace the now scarce ayungin fish. By EDELWISA ROMAN GONZAGA
| Apr 18 2020

Now on its 17th year, the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award is the first food writing award in the Philippines. Dedicated to the memory of the pioneering food anthropologist and dean of Philippine food columnists, the Award aims to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and to develop a pool of new talents in food literature and food journalism. Awarded honorable mention, this essay is penned by Edelwisa Roman Gonzaga, wife of a Methodist pastor assigned to the United States.

My husband, Conrado, was predestined to lead a life inundated with fish. Years before Spain colonized the Philippines starting in 1565, his hometown, Taytay in Rizal Province, was part of the fabled Kingdom of Sapa, purportedly named after places along Pasig River within its royal domain. Taytay’s proximity to Laguna de Bay, the country’s largest lake, has also allowed the town to feast on its bounty for centuries. Taytay’s relationship with edible aquatic treasures remains strong. Barangay Sta. Ana, part of the town, celebrates a yearly Banak Festival to pay homage to its patron saint believed to have flooded the area with banak, grey mullet, more than 400 years ago when the locals were stricken by impending famine.  

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With such a rich marine backdrop, Conrado’s being a suhi was a godsend to his neighborhood. It was believed that his breech birth (suhi) had endowed him with special power to help people suffering from bikig, foreign matter stuck in the throat, usually a fishbone. As a suhi, he was amusingly called Dr. Bikig and his street’s most in-demand fellow when such a crisis occurred. Old folk swore by the efficacy of a suhi’s miraculous saliva and gentle, healing strokes to move the offending bone and relieve pain. 

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My husband Rev. Conrado Medina Gonzaga of Taytay, Rizal and Washington State

 

My beloved suhi is immune to those unfortunate fishbone-in-the-gullet maladies, but not to the allure of Taytayeño cuisine featuring freshwater fish. Talibubu, guisado (sauté), is one of Conrado’s all-time favorite dishes. Oral history declares it is named after bubu or bubo, a rattan fishing implement. Its other name is ayungin (silver perch, Leiopotherapon plumbeus), after the dish’s original star as many taal na taga-Taytay (true Taytay native) unanimously declare. Once the common Pinoy trifecta of garlic, onion and tomato is fully cooked, it’s time to add other ingredients like the ayungin, coconut milk, slivers of ginger, green chilies, a little soy sauce and a drop of vinegar. As the sauce turns toasty and oily yet still creamy, naglalangis according to home cooks, the finishing touch is added, alagaw (Premna odorata) leaves. 

Unfortunately, the traditional recipe for talibubu has become a victim of vagaries. It is a sad commentary on how environmental neglect and shrewd business practices lead people to scamper like a school of rudely interrupted fish as original ingredients become inaccessible. Alagaw that used to be abundant is being replaced by pechay (Chinese cabbage). Purists insist though that alagaw is singlehandedly responsible for the distinct character of talibubu. They repugnantly proclaim, “Kapag walang alagaw, hindi na talibubu yun.” (If there is no alagaw, it’s no longer talibubu). Ayungin would likewise become scarce and expensive, forcing Taytayeños to cast their nets wider for a more practical alternative, the tilapia

My “diasporic” talibubu using tilapia fillets, canned coconut milk, and spinach 

The first tilapia arrived in the Philippines in May 1950 from Bangkok, Thailand through the Bureau of Fisheries, according to the 1991 edition of the Philippine Students Almanac. A dozen were transported by plane in tin containers but three died on arrival in Manila. The rest were taken to Dagat-Dagatan Pond Experiment Station in Malabon (a town in Rizal) where they were reared in concrete tanks. In three months, the original stock spawned and multiplied. Some were transplanted to Tanay in Rizal, Mangatarem in Pangasinan and other private fishponds. 

Research on Taytay’s market scene published in the August 1909 issue of Philippine Journal of Science reports that many freshwater fish, in particular dalag (mudfish) and kanduli (Manila sea catfish), were plenty. Some dried fish like dilis (anchovy) and sapsap (ponyfish) from Manila could be bought. Working-class Taytayeños hung them in their nipa hut kitchens together with strings of garlic, peppers and ears of maize. Tilapia was non-existent. The book Culinary Arts in the Tropics Circa 1922 (Carlos Quirino, ed., Regal Publishing Co., 1978) exhaustively describes Manila’s great assortment of seafood, from local catch to the “well advertised but tasteless cold storage fish brought in from New Zealand and Seattle,” the latter evidently for the colonial American population. Still there was no tilapia.

Rev. Gonzaga holding copies of Hallowed Tables, a compilation of recipes and stories from other pastors' wives that I wrote in 2018 (New Day Publishers). It features a number of little-known heirloom dishes from his hometown- Taytay, Rizal

Just a few decades later, however, tilapia would emerge as the go-to source of affordable protein for millions of Filipinos. Today’s generation actually associates talibubu not with ayungin but tilapia. Who would have thought our tilapia started with just twelve fish? My favorite suhi, now a Methodist pastor, would correlate this with The Messiah who with His twelve disciples fed bread and fish to the hungry multitude. Conrado now adores even the spiritual fare that goes beyond his palate, the ichthus in his life.  

Life in the Pacific Northwest

Although Conrado lives just a hundred miles away from the iconic Pike Place Fish Market, he still hankers for the talibubu of his youth. Alas, available sangkap (ingredient) dictates how a dish evolves. In our American home, we prepare together a hackneyed, diasporic talibubu using frozen tilapia fillets and canned coconut milk from Walmart. It is a product of Pinoy culinary ingenuity and resourcefulness. If it’s any consolation, Conrado can now relish his talibubu uninterruptedly as the suhi theory is considered a fishmonger’s tale hereabouts. All’s well in our kitchen paradise and there’s nothing fishy about it. 

 

For more information, visit Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award on Facebook.