Finally! I found the right mixture, perfect for the taste I’ve been longing to savor again. That hot (but not too hot) and sour mix of perfection that opens up my purely Pinoy palate. Heaven at last! In that moment of pure expectation, that I thought I was going to be disappointed again, the delightful pleasure of finally getting through to the gauntlet of endless experimentation (which, I might add, has not been cheap here) has finally ended. Hay!
So here’s the lowdown on the wonderfully tasty paksiw I finally found suited my hungry search for it’s equivalent here in America.
First off, I discovered that the right vinegar is a very important choice. Being new in living la vida (loca-loca) in America and finding all the various kinds and brands and formulas of the liquid was so exciting that I tended to lean towards the American, if not Western brands, in the thought that I was in America, thus must be able to make an American version of the dish. Oh please, excuse me, but Datu Puti pa rin pala! And, there is no American version because “there can only be one.”
The kind of fish also made as much difference in the taste as finding the proper balance of vinegar and pepper and chili. Oh, the various species of fish I tried to fit into the dish’s seemingly simple concoction. There was the catfish fillet I thought would be perfect since I love catfish. It made sense to me then because it was already clean, cut up to bite-size portions and was displayed in a white Styrofoam tray and hygienically packed and covered with see-trough plastic. I even put in some of the pinakurat I’d bought in the Filipino store. The fish, when I uncovered the pot, looked like curdled cheese curls floating in a sea of milky white flotsam. But, not to be discouraged, I was not averse to going ahead and try to taste it, regardless of its aesthetically challenged appearance, which I made anyway. But, oh my gulay! If I had to know how rubber tasted, this was it. The curly rings of catfish fillet was so tough and gummy that I thought maybe I made a mistake and had bought some kind of unknown wild white meat instead (cheap kasi siya e). To this day, I don’t know what happened. Then there was that fish whose name I did not recognize, but looked like the ones I saw in Bankerohan, Imelda or tambak I thought. The flesh, which I thought would turn out the way I knew fish to be (flaky, white and soft) tasted flat with a sandy feel (murag balas gani), and reddish-pink around the bones. I had to throw it all. Again, it was so cheap kasi ba. Now, to be safe, I only use bangus. Though I did, recently, find frozen galunggong (the small ones I love fried to a crisp pa naman!) in the Asian store near us.
Then there was the choice of chili. The variety displayed in groceries here is so numerous that you sometimes can’t help but try them. My hand would go towards the long green ones we use, but since beside it is the small orange ones they call capsicum, and, since I also thought the color could really make the dish look more pleasant anyway, the green ones lost, and the orange capsicums found their way into the grocery cart. Another disaster. The dish came out so hot you forgot there was anything else in it. The only other chili I use now is the green jalapeños which actually enhances the taste. You just have to make sure all the seeds are removed so there isn’t too much heat.
Okay, so enough with all the words, here’s the recipe I was able to finagle out of the first year of my American sojourn, and hope you also find as good.
Paksiw na Isda
* Fish (bangus if you don’t wish to experiment, though I still have to try salmon and tilapia fillet)
* vinegar (Datu Puti for me)
* jalapeño chili, seeds removed, julienned
* cracked black peppercorn
* salt or patis (or both)
* ginger, julienned also (or slice in chunks and pounded)
* plenty of freshly chopped garlic (or pounded would be fine too)
* a little water
* a few tablespoons of cooking oil or olive oil if you prefer
The procedure is pretty simple. Just put the cuts of fish loosely in the pan. Make sure your pan is either glass, enamel or stainless steel. It is a known fact now that cooking food with acidic ingredients such as vinegar in aluminum pots causes Alzheimer’s disease (sa ato pa, ulyanin gud).
Prepare all the dry ingredients, ginger, garlic, jalapeño, salt and pepper, and mix them together. Put all of these on top of the fish. Mix a little water, just a little, or none if you like your paksiw really mukhasim-y, and pour over the dry ingredients. This will make the spices settle around the fish. Pour the cooking oil last. Cover and let it cook in a slow fire for more than 30 minutes at least. Uncover only to taste. Add more salt or pepper if you think it still needs it. Let it simmer for another five minutes and turn the heat off. Do not uncover while cooking.
It is much better to eat paksiw the next day, or the next, just like adobo. Siempre, hot white rice, or brown if you prefer, is a must to really get into it. Enjoy!
(Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries. Dabawenya Margot Marfori is a writer and visual artist who continues to live the Davao she loves. She taught at the University of the Philippines in Mindanao from 1996 to 2002. She is now based more times of the year in Henderson, Nevada, while her youngest son is studying at UNLV, and, where her two older children in San Francisco is near enough to visit).