Where There's Smoke

story and photography by Tracey Paska
 

The ground is damp from recent rains, but it doesn’t seem to bother Richard Lancion as he stacks a handful of local charcoal and chunks of dried coconut husk on the pebbly soil between two moss-covered cinder blocks. He lights a crumpled piece of newspaper and drops it on the pile, watching the hairy fibers of the hulls ignite and fanning the timid licks of flame until they grow more robust. “When it’s already burning, you add more coconut husks, one by one,” he says, doing just that. Don’t use green or orange husks, he cautions—they are raw and won’t catch fire as easily as the dried ones.

Richard, 61, has set up his grill in a hastily cleared spot in the backyard of his home in Mogpog, a quiet town on the island province of Marinduque, several arduous hours south of Manila by land and sea ferry. Close to retirement as a professional nurse, he usually spends his free time with his wife Liza, 55, tending to their garden where they grow papaya, banana, calamansi, and guyabano, as well as black pepper, sweet potatoes, and all manner of leafy vegetables. Today, however, he is occupied with an entirely different task: making tinapa.

Tinapa, widely known in the Philippines as brined and smoked fish, is an everyday, economical food found throughout the archipelago. Being so familiar as to be unremarkable and lacking the cachet of a feast food like roasted suckling pigs, lechon, or the Instagram-ready flamboyance of purple yams, ube, tinapa is rarely mentioned in current popular discussions of “must-try” Philippine food. But for countless generations of Filipinos, a taste for its delectably smoky, briny flavor is practically coded in our DNA, which may explain why Richard suddenly finds himself puttering around in his soggy yard, assembling a makeshift smoker. 

Satisfying a craving for smoked fish would have been easier if he had simply gone to the local town market to buy tinapa. Any palengke worth its salt will have at least one vendor selling the copper-colored fish, arranged in eye-catching symmetry on banana leaves or round woven-bamboo trays called bilaos. A wide variety of fish, from small sardines to meaty milkfish, are made into tinapa, usually by family producers in provincial towns and rural areas and by larger smokehouses operating around Manila Bay, the epicenter of tinapa production in the Philippines. Richard, however, is understandably proud of the fish-smoking skills that his mother passed down to him. After all, there was a time when tapahin was a necessary skill for any Filipino household or community to preserve a valuable food source before it quickly spoiled in our tropical climate.

After a few minutes, a low fire burns hot beneath the coconut husks, so Richard straddles the cinder blocks with an iron grill. Never mind that the metal of that old parilya  is rusted out and crusted over from innumerable barbecues past; he just cuts down a couple of young banana stalks growing nearby and lays them across the deteriorating grate as substitute rods. “When the parilya is hot, we can put the fish one by one in a line,” he says.

Richard’s MacGyvered grill looks downright primitive compared to the professional smokers the size of steam engines and the pricey egg-shaped ceramic barbecues of today. But in terms of ‘traditional’ tinapa-making, it comes pretty close to how our ancestors may have done the job. According to Spanish lexicographer Fray Pedro de San Beunaventura in his Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala, published in 1613 and one of the oldest extant dictionaries of the Tagalog language, hunks of meat and “open”—most likely butterflied—fish were placed on a structure woven from split reeds and set above the fire to be smoked (1). And, in the contemporaneous manuscript Bocabulario Tagalo, author Fray Miguel Ruiz described meat or fish placed on a “bamboo parilla” to be smoked or dried over low heat (2)—reminiscent of Richard’s own banana stalk parilya.

These entries were for the term tapa (3)—the root of tinapa—generally meaning ‘to smoke or dry fish or meat for preservation’. Several pre-19th century Philippine-Spanish lexicons cross-reference tapa interchangeably with the Spanish words for roasting, grilling, and smoking. San Buenaventura, for instance, offers the word as the Tagalog equivalent of barbacoa (barbecue) and includes it in one definition of ahumar (to smoke). The term tinapa itself makes one of its earliest appearances in the 1711 Vocabulario de la Lengua Bisaya (4), albeit as a synonym for tapa and in reference to roasting. After that, the next earliest mention of the name tinapa that I could find was in the account of a Spanish medical officer written nearly 150 years later. So what was smoked fish in the Philippines before it eventually became tinapa as we now know it? The 400-year-old San Buenaventura dictionary provides the unrelated term tayubay (5), defined as meat or fish smoked without salt. It’s a definition that doesn’t quite fit today’s briny delicacy. 

As we wait for the parilya to heat up, Richard heads inside to the kitchen for the fish he had earlier prepped for smoking. Dozens of species can be used for tinapa, but oily fish, such as tuna, sardines, mackerel, and milkfish, are best. Richard has chosen galunggong (round scad) from among his other favorites: “tulingan, tamban, lumahan, burot burot (6) … Be sure to get them fresh from the market.” After gutting and washing the scad, he salts them—“on the outside only [and] not too much because if you put [on] more salt, it’s just salted fish”—and sets them aside for thirty minutes or so while he assembles the grill. 

Back outside, Richard arranges the ten little galunggong in a tight line on the banana stalk-rods, making sure they don’t overlap; they are only about four inches long but barely fit on the narrow parilya. As aromatic white smoke starts enveloping the fish, Richard cuts a large leaf from one of his banana plants and trims it so that when placed over the fish, only their forked tails peek out from underneath. The banana leaf helps to concentrate the smoke and imparts a mildly sweet, grassy aroma. “Usually, you can cook it for about fifteen to twenty minutes. When the fish is browned, you can turn it. A larger, whole fish might take an hour,” says Richard as he feeds the low flames with another coconut husk. 

Just as there is a wide variety of fish that can be made into tinapa, there are several kinds of fuel for the fire. Hardwoods, especially from fruit trees like lychee, longan, jackfruit, and pili nut, are often utilized, but, in the economical, “waste not, want not” spirit of tinapa, Filipinos also make use of inexpensive and abundant remnant materials, such as corn cobs, peanut shells, rice husks, bagasse (the leftover fibers from pressed sugarcane), and, of course, dried coconut husks. Richard prefers the latter, thanks to a ready source from the coconut trees growing on his family’s small farm nearby and for the profuse and pleasantly fragrant smoke that the fibers produce. It’s no wonder my mother, a fellow Mogpogueña, considers most commercial tinapa inferior in flavor to a homemade version smoked with dried bunot.

With little more than salt, fish, and fire, Richard’s barebones process is straight out of the past, but as much as it seems unchanged from how Filipinos have been making tinapa for centuries, fish smoking in the Philippines has evolved in many ways. Breaking free from tapa, tinapa appears finally to have come into its own by the mid-1800s, when the term began appearing in local and foreign print with more frequency and, more importantly, specifically about smoked fish: one of the earliest mentions comes from an 1857 medical survey written by Antonio Cordoniù y Nieto, a Spanish military physician who noted that the method of drying fish in an oven after being cooked also helped to mask potential spoilage (7).  Indeed, the change seems to coincide with the growth of tinapa as a substantial industry around the principal fish ports and commercial fishponds lining the shores of Manila Bay, from Malabon to the north, down to Cavite, and across the bay to Bataan. Smokehouses thrived on the nearby plentiful sources of raw material as fishermen brought excess, unsold catch that would otherwise spoil to be smoked into an entirely new product for sale. 

Many of Manila’s smokehouses, known as umbuyans (8), were owned and operated by Chinese businessmen in Tondo and Binondo (the world’s oldest Chinatown), which may have led to a belief that the Chinese introduced fish smoking to the Philippines. A more accurate statement might be that they refined an already-existing process. It’s quite possible that early smoking methods by Filipinos included salting the fish beforehand, as Richard has done, since salt-curing before sun-drying viands was a pre-Hispanic practice (9). The Chinese contribution may have been the introduction of pre-cooking between the brining/curing and smoking stages—a step that is found in traditional Hunan smoked meats. By the early 1900s, a standardized process for making tinapa was finally documented (10): fresh fish is gutted and washed, then soaked in a brine solution before being cooked briefly in yet another brine, after which they are smoked for several hours until they’ve turned the instantly recognizable reddish-golden hue (11).

The Chinese umbuyans in Manila were not the only ones known for their tinapa—some 30 kilometers south, in the municipality of Rosario in the Cavite province, smaller Filipino-owned tapahans produced smoked fish, mostly for the local market, using a variation of the Manila method. The Salinas (the town’s former name) process replaces the initial brining step and instead sets out the washed fish to sun- and air-dry for a couple of hours before being cooked in brine and then smoked for less than an hour (12). Perhaps due to the sun-drying step, reminiscent of how pungent dried fish (tuyo or daing) are made, the flavor of the now-famous Rosario-style tinapa, tinapang Salinas, is said to be incomparable and inimitable.

That flavor—a delectable combination of woodsy smoke and brininess, tempered by a bit of sweet and tangy—was irresistible to an increasing number of consumers who belied the perception of tinapa as poor man’s fare, a view occasionally expressed by foreigners who, at best, viewed it as part of “the daily diet of the lower-class natives.” (13) In fact, those “lower-class natives” might have found tinapa a bit too expensive as the demand for cheaper tuyo and daing was actually four times that of smoked fish (14). Tinapa was increasingly finding a place on more dinner tables and not just in modest Filipino households. Dr. Cordoniù  described tinapa as “a preparation highly esteemed by the Indios and even by the wealthy classes of the country (15), and it was mentioned alongside lobster and pansit as a celebratory food in a short story by Spanish historian Jose Montero y Vidal (16). The appeal of tinapa spread well beyond the Philippines, too: the Duluth (Minnesota) Evening Herald newspaper listed the smoked fish in an otherwise patronizing article about Filipino food. (17)

By the turn of the 20th century, the commercial tinapa industry was firing on all engines, as the number of umbuyans in just one Tondo neighborhood alone multiplied seven-fold, from five to thirty-six, in just ten years (18). But even as smokehouses churned out tinapa that pleased the taste buds, other senses were not so fortunate. The sight and smell of tons of fish—and fish guts—on a daily basis proved too much for many local residents who had to share close quarters with smokehouses, and, consequently, hygiene inspectors came down hard on the facilities. In one case that made the local newspaper, an umbuyan operating in a residential neighborhood was banished to “an isolated place in Isla de Balut”, an area in Tondo entirely surrounded by estuaries and Manila Bay and therefore considered “a more appropriate place for the industry” (19).  

Today, large food companies produce vacuum-sealed and frozen tinapa for local supermarkets and for global export, but, on the whole, small-scale neighborhood producers still supply most of the freshly smoked fish found in local town markets. While tinapa has shrugged off the label of poor man’s fare, tinapa-making is considered an excellent small-business opportunity for low-income families. In many cases, a whole community demonstrating a knack for making tinapa can become something of a national brand: the aforementioned tinapang Salinas from Rosario, Cavite; tinapang Talaga, from Barangay Talaga, Tarlac; and tinapang Balanga from Balanga, Bataan; have all become must-buy pasalubong, or edible souvenirs, for tourists. 

Manila Bay tinapa is popular all over the Philippines, but smoked fish by any other name in other provinces and regions are just as delicious and distinct. A specialty of Danao City, Cebu, the similar-sounding tinap-anan (20) is a whole fish, usually tambakol (yellowfin tuna) or tulingan (frigate mackerel), cooked paksiw-style (simmered in vinegar and garlic), then skewered on a bamboo stick and smoke-roasted. In the provinces of Samar and Leyte, smaller yellowfin tuna are likewise simmered in vinegar and garlic before they are skinned and painstakingly deboned. The meat is flaked, salted, and formed into hamburger-like patties and then smoked on a bamboo grill over a coconut husk fire to make podpod, a traditional provision for when the monsoon season keeps local fishermen ashore. And, in Lanao del Sur province, on the southern island of Mindanao, the Maranao people have bakas—smoke-roasted whole tuna piked on bamboo poles. Bakas is the basis of other traditional dishes such as bakas piaparan and a kind of fish croquette called pisasati when combined with a piquant and uniquely Maranao condiment called palapa [editor’s note: you can read about palapa in the second issue of Dill, Relishes].

As our own tinapang Mogpog is close to being done, I ask Richard about the best way to eat tinapa. “You can eat it for breakfast or lunch, with sawsawan [sauce]. Just dip the fish in suka [vinegar] with pepper, garlic, and small chiles,” he begins enthusiastically. “Also, you can combine it with atsara [pickled green papaya] or with cucumber, fried eggplant, and tomatoes with salted eggs and white onions. And you can put it in …” He interrupts the recitation to call out to Liza for the English translation of ginataang gulay: “coconut milk with vegetables!”'

Smoked fish is surprisingly versatile for such an uncomplicated food, as Richard’s list of favorite servings will tell you. Tinapa has become something of a trendy ingredient in recent years, showing up in pâtés, tapenades, and pasta sauces at gourmet groceries and upscale restaurants, but it is in classic Filipino preparations that its unique flavor truly stands out. The pairing of tinapa with steamed rice perfectly represents the foundation of Filipino foodways—ulam at kanin, or viand and rice—to which the addition of a myriad other ingredients transforms it into something else entirely. 

Smaller fish, such as sardines, mackerel, and scad, are best served whole as the main ulam accompanied by rice and a side dish of contrasting flavor, such as spicy vinegar with chiles or a tart atsara. But they also can serve as the accompaniment, adding a punch of umami to subtle dishes like utan bisaya, a mild vegetable soup from Cebu, and dinengdeng, a medley of vegetables in a bagoong- (fermented fish or shrimp paste) infused broth from the Ilocos region. 

Larger tinapa made with bangus (milkfish) and tilapia is great when used as an ingredient in other traditional dishes. A tinapa version of the ever-popular spring rolls, lumpia, substitutes the savory smoked fish and sotanghon (cellophane noodles) for the usual vegetables, shrimp, or pork filling, while a topping of tinapa flakes is non-negotiable in seafood-rich pansit Malabon (21). Kept whole, however, tinapang bangus becomes the main attraction when cooked with native vegetables like sitaw (yardlong beans) and kalabasa (squash) in a rich coconut milk sauce (ginataang) or made into relyeno, stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and salted egg. And should there be any rice and tinapa left over the next morning, they can be fried with garlic and shallots, topped with a sunny-side up egg, and served as a straight-up savory breakfast.

Our backyard tinapa is finally done, and Richard removes the banana leaf, uncovering the now-smoked round scad. Like a sunbather who fell asleep with an arm across her belly, the fish have turned a dark copper except for a wide pale strip across their middle where they had lain on the still-green banana stalk parilya. As Richard transfers the fish onto a plate lined with yet another fresh banana leaf, he recalls how he would make tinapa for my parents during their visits to Mogpog and how much my late father looked forward to it. “Your papa would say, ‘Sige, sige, gusto ko yan!’ [Sure, sure, I like that!],” he remembers. He walks back into the house with the plate of tinapa as the last wisps of smoke fade into the afternoon air.

RECIPE: Smoked Fish (tinapa)

RECIPE: Coconut Vegetable Stew with Smoked Fish (ginataang tinapa)

RECIPE: Maranao Smoked Fish Croquettes (pisasati o tinapa)

 

Footnotes

(1) Fray Pedro de San Beunaventura, Vocabulario de la Lengua Tagala (1613), accessed December 18, 2017, http://sb.tagalogstudies.org/2010/10/103.html. An online transcription of the SB Vocabulario by the San Antonio de Padua College Foundation, Inc. retains the archaic letters and spelling of some words, so translations are not exact.

(2) Elmer Nocheseda, “Tinapa,” Tagalog Dictionary (1630), accessed December 1, 2017, https://www.tagalog-dictionary.com/filipino-food/tinapa. The post references the original undated manuscript of Bocabulario Tagalo by Ruiz (d. 1630), which was not published until a 1997 translation by Dutch anthropologist Antoon Postma (1929-2016).

(3) Tapa belongs in several Philippine languages and can be traced to Taiwan’s ancient Formosan languages; it has no apparent linguistic connection to Spanish tapa (snacks or appetizers). Today, Filipino tapa refers to dried or cured meats. Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, <http://www.trussel2.com/acd/acd-s_c2.htm#25876> accessed 12/18/2017.

(4) Also known as Visayan, a group of Tagalog-related languages spoken primarily in the central and southern regions. The Vocabulario was completed in Leyte by Father Mateo Sanchez a year before his death in 1618 but not printed until nearly a century later in Manila.

(5) SB Vocabulario, 37. 

(6) His favorites appear in this order: bullet tuna, sardines, mackerel, and mackerel scad.

(7) Antonio Cordoniù y Nieto, Topografia médica de las Islas Filipinas, 175 (Madrid: D. Alejandro Gomez Fuentenebro, 1857), accessed December 18, 2017, https://archive.org/details/topografiamdic00codo.

(8) Daniel Doeppers, Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850-1945 (Madison: UP of Wisconsin, 2016). Umbuyan doesn’t appear to be rooted in any Philippine-language word related to smoke; a possible connection may be with an area of Binondo called Omboy, where smoked fish was considered a specialty (184).

(9) The Philippine Islands 1493-1898 33, eds. Emma H. Blair and James A. Robertson (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clarke, 1906), 200-03. Antonio Pigafetta (d. 1534), who recorded his travels with Ferdinand Magellan in Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo, twice remarked on the “molto salato” (very salty) meat and fish served to the expedition during stops in Cebu and the Visayas. Historian William Henry Scott noted in Barangay: Sixteenth-century Philippine Culture and Society (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila UP, 1994) that early Visayans not only barbecued or smoked meat and fish but also preserved them by salt-curing and sun-drying (47).

(10) Claro Martin, “Methods of Smoking Fish around Manila Bay,” The Philippine Journal of Science 55, no.1 (1934): 83, accessed December 18, 2017, https://archive.org/details/act3868.0055.001.umich.edu?q=methods+of+smoking+fish+around+manila+ba.

(11) Leonarda S. Mendoza, “Traditional Methods of Smoking Fish in the Philippines,” Cured Fish Production in the Tropics: Proceedings of a Workshop at the Department of Fish Processing Technology, College of Fisheries, (Quezon City: University of the Philippines in the Visayas, 1986), 154. First described by Martin, who simply called it the “method of smoking employed in Manila,” Mendoza calls it the Navotas-Malabon process after the main fish ports and location of tinapa smokehouses.

(12) Ibid., 153-4. Mendoza notes that sun- and air-drying helps to firm the fish so as to maintain its form for a more appealing presentation.

(13) Murat Halstead, The Story of the Philippines (Chicago: Our Possessions, 1898), 194, accessed October 31, 2017, https://archive.org/details/storyofphilippin00halsiala?q=murat+halstead+philippines.

(14) Doeppers, 185.

(15) Cordoniu y Nieto, 175. 

(16) “El Payo de Chang-Chuy,” Cuentos Filipinos (Madrid: Tip. del Asilo de Huérfanos del Sagrado Corazon de Jésus, 1883), 251, accessed October 24, 2017, https://archive.org/details/cuentosfilipinos01mont_0.

(17) “Odd Filipino Dishes,” Duluth Evening Herald, 17 October 1903, accessed October 24, 2017, https://archive.org/details/sept1190307dulu?q=duluth+evening+herald+tinapa.

(18) Doeppers, 184.

(19) Translado del ‘umbuyan’ a la Isla de Balut,” La Vanguardia. 1 September 1937 (137). Via Internet Archive <https://archive.org/details/PhilippinesPressClippings2> accessed 11/7/2017. 

(20) In the Visayas region, tinapa refers to canned sardines in tomato sauce.

(21) The City of Malabon is home to a large number of milkfish farms and loaned its name to the widely used process of tinapa-making (see footnote 10).