Philippine cuisine is Southeast Asia's most under-appreciated (except by Filipinos); it's probably for this reason that Salcedo Market, a once-a-week outdoor affair in Makati, Manila's business district, is so little known. Were Salcedo - a juried collection of stalls offering a bounty of Philippine regional (and some international) foods - located in Singapore or Bangkok or Saigon it be known to Southeast Asia-bound globe-trotting foodies. Instead it's bounty is left to the purvey of mostly locals, expats, and the occasional tourist.
On this day Dave and I've come to Salcedo in search of neither lechon nor piaya (though we'll end up sampling plenty of each), but for bangus relleno: grilled milkfish, boned and stuffed with a mixture that includes its own chopped meat. Dave was lucky enough to nab some on a solo jaunt to Salcedo in February (while I lay in our hotel room, felled by the flu) and I've been waiting for a chance to partake.
Alas, by the time we make our way to the front of the queue the relleno is sold out, and we're obliged to settle for milkfish stuffed merely with chopped vegetables. Yet as we soon find out, we're isn't 'settling' at all, for this version of grilled fish is a delicious dish in its own right.
Dead simple to prepare, the dish starts with a mix of chopped red onions, green chilies, and tomatoes seasoned with dark soy, and kalamansi juice.
The steps in the assembly line behind the grill fall in this order: the boned, butterflied fish is laid flat, skin side down, on a piece of banana leaf laid on top of a piece of tin foil.
It's rubbed with coarse salt and kalamansi juice,
and spread with a generous mound of vegetables drained of their soy and kalamansi sauce.
The fish is rolled tightly in its tin foil packet, but the head end is left open so that a ladel of sauce can be spooned in. Once the packet is completely sealed it spends about 15 minutes or so over the coals, the fish cooking away in all that lovely citrus-soy juice.
The fish emerges from the packet moist, fragrant, and bit piquant from chilies and kalamansi, and the vegetables are perfectly cooked, the onions having lost their harshness, the tomatoes still holding a bit of shape, and the chilies toothsome. A little extra uncooked sauce on the side makes for a nice dipping sauce.
Hot-off-the-barbie fish bundles in hand, we stake out a position at one of Salcedo's crowded picnic tables and dig in.
Salcedo Market Stuffed and Grilled Fish
Most any firm-fleshed fish would do for the this recipe; at home we've used red snapper and mackerel. A completely boned, butterflied fish is ideal, but we've also done well with mostly-boned, backbone-intact specimens. The idea is to create as much space in the belly of the fish as possible, because the more stuffing, the better.
This is not a dish that calls for the tastiest, juiciest, heirloom tomatoes. For this recipe, use firm tomatoes with a bit of tartness - green tomatoes would even work. Chilies should not be overwhelmingly fiery - you don't want to overpower the taste of the fish. We like more heat than most, achieved in this dish by chopping up a few bird chilies and adding them to the leftover raw vegetables-dipping sauce. We also found a bit of chopped coriander to be a nice addition.
If it's not grilling weather bake the fish in the oven, at around 220C or 400F for 15-20 minutes, depending on the size of your fish.
3-4 medium firm tomatoes, chopped
1 medium red onion (or 6 or so red shallots), chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
7 or 8 long green chilies, chopped
2 1/2 Tbsp DARK soy
3 Tbsp kalamansi juice (susbstite lime juice or 3/4 lime juice and 1/4 orange juice)
1/2 tsp sugar
banana leaf (optional)
1 medium-sized whole firm-fleshed fish, head and tail on - boneless and butterflied or mostly boned and opened as wide as it will go
2 or 4 kalamansi halves, depending on size of fish
bird chilies or other very hot chilies, chopped (optional)
1/2 bunch cilantro, finely chopped (optional)
additional kalamansi or lime (optional)
1. Mix together the tomatoes, onion, garlic, mild chilies, sugar, soy, and kalamansi juice and allow to sit for 14 minutes. Taste for saltiness and tartness, add soy and/or kalamansi or sugar if necessary.
2. Spread a piece of tin foil (doubled over, if not heavy-duty) big enough to enclose the fish on your countertop, shiny side up. Place banana leaf, if using, cut to width of body of fish in middle of foil. (If not using banana leaf, very thinly coat tin foil with cooking oil.
3. Place the fish on the foil or leaf (skin side down, if butterflied) and rub its flesh with salt; follow with kalamansi juice. If fish is butterflied, mound filling (drained and juice reserved or spooned from bowl with a strainer) over fish almost to edges. If the fish isn't butterflied, fill it with as much drained stuffing as it will hold without gaping open too wide.
4. Wrap the fish tightly on all but the head end. Hold the package upright and pour in a generous spoonful or two of sauce. Close the head end tightly.
5. Grill, turning 3 times, 15-20 minutes (depending on size of fish) or bake 15-20 minutes at 400F (220C), turning once.
6. Optional: While the fish is cooking stir chopped cilantro and/or chopped hot chilies into leftover sauce.
7. Serve with rice (the fish is also tasty with a nice crusty baguette!), dipping sauce and kalamansi or lime wedges on the side.