Folks, there’s more to Bicol cuisine than laing (shredded taro leaves cooked in coconut milk) and gulay na lada (red-hot chilies and pork cooked in coonut milk). Time to get introduced to Sinanglay, a creamy, sweetish, pleasingly light dish that I’ve shamelessly deconstructed often enough. (By the way, for those who don’t know, Bicol is a region in the Philippines known for its hot and spicy dishes often cooked in coconut milk.)
If anyone can explain the literal meaning of “Sinanglay”, I’d appreciate it very much. The origin of the word, I suspect, has been lost a long time ago, but we never know, right? There’s one — AND ONLY ONE — important rule when having a Sinanglay meal. Never, ever eat it without a steaming plate of rice! It’s simply wrong to eat this without its perfect ‘mate’.
Personally, my ritual with Sinanglay is putting a small heap of rock salt in a saucer and picking one green and one red, very ripe siling labuyo (bird’s eye chili), which I mash onto the salt. Once I get a good greenish-reddish coloring in the seasoning (and I start getting a whiff of the pungent aroma of hot chili), I would then dip the back of my spoon on the salt and dab it on the fish. But, I’m getting ahead of my story…
In its original incarnation, Sinanglay is tilapia fish wrapped in pechay (pak choi or bok choi but the wide-leaf kind) and simmered in coconut milk. The family recipe would always have chopped tomatoes, onions, garlic, sometimes kamias (bilimbi fruit) to add a bit of sourness, minced ginger, lemongrass, all of which are mixed and inserted into the fish’s cavities (like the belly and head), before wrapping it up in the greens. That’s mom’s way. Dads will be dads and sometimes would just let the pechay leaves cook alongside the fish. Good-natured ribbing between husband and wife would sometimes ensue but the fragrant aroma coming from the simmering pot would make them forget what they were arguing about in the first place. That’s Sinanglay magic for you. The fresh and creamy coconut milk would be cooked first, with the extra garnishing mentioned thrown in there too, allowing everything to boil once (you need to keep stirring). Once the coconut milk is boiling, the fish is then gently placed in the pot and simmered in low heat until cooked.
That’s the traditional way. Let’s now take a look at the Kitchen Gypsy Pixie way. Here’s the result:
2 pcs. fish fillet (tilapia or cream dory)
1 bunch, Pak Choi (I could only find the small-size ones)
2-3 small tomatoes (chopped)
1 small to medium onion (chopped)
Garlic (minced, as much as you like)
1 small knob of ginger (minced)
1 lemongrass stem
1 cup coconut milk (Thailand’s coconut milk in tetrapack is fine too, especially if you can’t find fresh ones)
A word about coconut milk: If you’re using freshly grated coconut, you can reserve the first pressing (squeezed without any water), which will give you a very creamy liquid. You reserve this and can use it as an extra topping on the fish just when you’re about to serve it. This is also used for another Bicol dish called ‘tinuktuk‘ but that’s another story altogether. For the coconut milk you’ll use for cooking, pour just a bit of hot water (about a cup) on the grated coconut (that’s 1 coconut) and start squeezing. The more coconut you use, the creamier the dish. You don’t want the coconut milk too watery so I suggest you squeeze all the juices out by the second pressing (with a bit of water).
Mix the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and ginger well. Set aside.
Pour the coconut milk onto a pan and add the lemongrass. Bring to a boil but keep stirring. Once the coconut milk starts boiling, add the garnishing that you mixed earlier. Lower heat and put the fish fillet in. Cover and simmer. It will only take 3-5 minutes for the fish to cook (it takes longer if you’re doing this the traditional way). Halfway through the fish’s cooking time, add in the pechay. Season with salt, or better yet, fish sauce. You can add sliced hot chilies too if you like. Serve hot. — B.C. Lee