Monthly Archives: December 2011

Dried Fish: A Mystery in 3 Parts (Until Google was invented)

Food, my ever constant companion. I appreciate it. I study it. I even try to cook it once in a while. If the concept of food took on human form, it would be my soulmate. I was a fan of food decades before the current “Foodie” trend… as evidenced by rotundity. My portliness. Fatty McFatFat. Food is tied to some of my most concrete, vibrant memories of growing up. I’ve pretty much forgotten the faces of other students in my kindergarten class. I, however, can very clearly remember that at the time, my favorite sandwich was chicken salad on white bread. And that I once made an “Eww” face at one of my classmates when he said, “Hey, I have a chicken sandwich, too!” His chicken sandwich looked nothing like mine. Sandwichist.

Throughout kindergarten and the rest of my elementary school years, both my mom and dad worked, and on different schedules. My mom was a nurse and would work what seemed like every day of the week, either a 11pm to 7am shift or a 3pm to 11pm shift. My dad worked a 9-5 somewhere ridiculously far, like Ontario or something, doing… whatever it is that he did. That being the case, my sister and I had to spend many days and nights after school at our paternal Lola’s house (Lola = Filipino for grandma). It was a second home to us. I remember spending days picking tangerines, marunggay leaves, and spinach in the backyard garden. Every morning my Lola would serve us hot cocoa and toast. Sometimes, she would throw in a sunny-side-up egg, which was awesome, even though I wasn’t quite a fan of runny yolk back then. When it came to lunch or dinner, we got lots of munggo (mung bean stew), kadios (black beans with chicken), or tinola (chicken with marunggay leaves).

There was one dish in particular, however, that I really liked. I remember it as pinakas, a type of split, salted, sun-dried fish. We always had it over a bed of hot rice, steam still rising from the freshly-cooked grains. My Lola would sometimes have it with sibuyas at kamatis (onions and tomatoes) with a little bit of calamansi (Philippine lime). I preferred mine unadulterated: just the chewy saltiness of the fish accentuated by the warm fluffiness of the rice. This flavor/texture combination still brings me back to weekend afternoons spent in the breakfast nook in the corner of my Lola’s kitchen, sunlight flooding in through the nearby window and filtering through the pastel drapes. It reminds me of the heavy brown wooden table and its hexagonal top, which made seating a bit difficult at times. I can still see the pink, bowl-shaped, plastic “food cage” she would place around the leftovers to keep houseflies away and the antique Coca-cola mirror hanging on the wall, advertising 5 cents a bottle.

Things changed by the time high-school hit, however. The high school I attended was no longer in the same neighborhood as Lola’s house. My parents’ work hours had changed. I discovered the online world. AOL was awesome. Chat rooms were the bees knees. BBSing was the wave of the future. Gangsta rap had emerged in the LBC. Extracurricular activities had become a way of life. By then, I was spending much less time at Lola’s house. It stayed that way until she passed away a year after college.

I never really got to enjoy pinakas throughout all of high school or college. For some reason, we never had it at home-home. We had tons of other dried and or marinated fish dishes. There was always daing na bangus (a split milkfish marinated in vinegar and garlic, then usually fried) and other types of dried fish, like tinapa or tuyo, but I never had pinakas again. And truth be told, I didn’t know who to ask about it. From a young age, I was the type of kid that had to figure things out for myself. That still carries on until today. I don’t ask questions unless absolutely necessary, not because I’m apprehensive about asking necessarily, but I believe the answer is always out there if you just look for your own damn self. I sorta attribute that to my dad… which is another story for another time.

The thing was, I wasn’t sure I had the correct name of the dried fish. There was always a language barrier between my Lola and I. My parents never taught my sister or I how to speak Tagalog. It’s not like that would have helped anyway, because I don’t think my Lola spoke much of it either. I asked my mom once, what language Lola spoke, and the answer was “Bisayan”. Which, I guess sounds like a pretty definite answer, but not when you take into account that Bisayan or Visayan refers more to an entire group of languages found in central Philippines. Under that umbrella term, there’s Cebuano, Ilonggo (Hiligaynon), Aklanon, Kinaray-a, and a host of other languages. While some people say “Bisayan” and it’s safe to assume that they mean “Cebuano,” you never really know. So really, when my Lola said this was pinakas, part of me wasn’t sure if I was just making the word up, or if she was referring to something else entirely. So I never really asked anyone about it. And when she passed away, I really didn’t know who to ask.

Enter: Google. While there had been search engines prior to Google, they never really provided such a quick, comprehensive, context accurate search of the interwebs. Believe me, before Google came along, searching the internet was a skill. Now, pretty much anyone can find anything on the internet, thanks to Google. Well, that’s what I thought, until I went searching the internet for pinakas. I tried several times over the past decade, searching the interwebs for this favorite childhood dish of mine. It wasn’t a constant search, but he thought of pinakas would just pop into my head randomly over the years and I would spend the next hour or so scouring the interwebs. Each time that happened, however, I couldn’t find a thing. Even now, if you Google “pinakas”, you’ll learn that it’s also a Greek surname, an ancient Indian weapon, and a not so ancient Indian rocket launcher. I would just chalk up the failure to the fact that there wasn’t anyone out there making websites centered around Filipino food or at least, not this deep of a level of Filipino food.

That all changed a few days ago. I was sitting at home, surfing the internet on my Android phone, (Motorola Atrix 4G, ftw.) when the thought of pinakas popped in my head. Cut to le Me, Googling pinakas. I’m initially disappointed, because I again see the Greek surnames and Indian weapons. Then I look at the image search bar, and I see this:

A smile immediately draws itself across my face. I click on the picture and then onto the website hosting the image. And there it is. The answer I’ve sought for the last 20 years.

What I knew as pinakas was more correctly called pinakas nga guma-a. Pinakas referring to the preparation process and guma-a being the kind of fish (big-eye scad in English). Even more interestingly, pinakas nga guma-a comes from a very specific place in the Philippines. It’s an Ilonggo dish, with a very Ilonggo name. Ilonggo refers to the people from the province of Iloilo, on the island of Panay. One island. It comes from one island in an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, an island from where my dad’s side of the family came, including my Lola. While they were from Antique, which is a neighboring province to Iloilo, I’m guessing pinakas nga guma-a didn’t have much trouble making it to that side of the island. It’s worthwhile to point out that information is very easily disseminated nowadays. In past decades, however, cultural diffusion seems to have taken exponentially longer. I can only assume that pinakas nga guma-a, at least the term, wasn’t something that made it too far past the waters surrounding Panay. It’s funny, because I’m sure if you ask any random Fil-Am walking around Los Angeles, more often than not, they have no idea about Ilonggo food. Kadios, pinakas nga guma-a, pancit molo, it’s a mystery to most people. I’m sure that will all change once the powers at Malinius get their next film in the can. Shout out!

And that’s why I never really had while at home-home. My mom hails from Caloocan, in the Metro Manila area of Luzon, hundreds of miles north on a completely different island. The family has historically cultural ties to Ilocos Sur, which is even further north. That being said, the cuisine was completely different. Yes, I love me some pinakbet. So it’s very reasonable to think that none of them would have any idea what pinakas nga guma-a refers to, even though they may have cooked some form of it themselves.

At any rate, 20 years of wondering all came to a screeching halt earlier this week, and I have Google to thank, as well as whoever writes at Thanks. I feel like just had a Roots moment right now. I’m halfway tempted to run to the nearest Filipino market, and hug some random Filipino guy while crying. Or, I could just find me some pinakas nga guma-a and feel a little closer to my Lola again. I vote for the latter.

Anyway, that’s my long winded explanation of the tweet I sent out earlier this week. I told you it was rather mundane. Hah!

Happy Holidays, everyone.