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Seafood is a fabulous deal throughout the archipelago, and Manila has a true seafood culture. A seafood outing is something a foreign visitor definitely should not miss when in the Philippine capital. Many restaurants in Manila specialize in seafood, and one gets it expertly prepared in any of three styles: native, Chinese or European/American.
In native Philippine cuisine, preparation of smaller fish is normally to deep-fry them until they are crisp. Larger fish are either cut and stewed or cooked whole with innards intact over a fire.
In Chinese cuisine, fish and seafood may be fried in oil over fierce heat, breaded and deep-fried, cooked with a sweet and sour sauce, prepared as soup, or steamed. When simply steamed, fish and seafood main-tain their natural flavor best. In steaming freshness is of utmost impor-tance. When frying fish there may not be a difference in taste between one killed just before cooking and another killed but kept fresh for approximately a day; but when merely steamed, a fish killed just before preparation certainly has a finer taste than one just kept fresh for many hours. The difference is an underlying mysterious sweetness in taste which is unknown in European fish and seafood preparation.
As it is much easier to catch and keep lobsters, crab, prawns and shrimp alive, these are only killed before cooking both in Chinese and European style seafood restaurants.
When it comes to lobster, large seafood restaurants have an often un-thought of advantage over smaller ones. Lobsters shouldn't be kept in aquariums for too long a time not be-cause it harms the quality but rather the quantity. A lobster loses quite a bit of weight if kept in an aquarium. This may result from the stress it suffers during transport and the keeping time in the aquarium. The lobster, however, doesn't lose the weight of its shell and innards but only of its meat. And as the proportion between meat and other parts of the lobster declines the longer a lobster is kept in an aquarium, it's a loss to keep the lobster too long; and it's a loss the guest in a restaurant pays for as lobster is commonly priced according to weight. A lobster of 1.5 kilos (3.3 lbs) in weight yields different amounts of meat, depending on whether it was stored in the aquarium for two days or two weeks.
French cuisine (and European cuisine in general) prepares fish decisively different than either Filipino or Chinese cuisine. French cuisine has a very gentle way of handling fish. It is not fried too hot, and not for too long, and then served with a sauce. One very specific French fish sauce, for example, gets its taste from almonds; but cheese based sauces are also common.
Seafood in Manila is perfectly fresh. Of course it is not caught in the dirty, oily Manila Bay but is either farmed or comes from the sea surrounding Palawan. Particularly Chinese seafood restaurants keep a lot of fish and seafood alive in aquariums to secure the ultimate in freshness.
A number of restaurants show the fish to the guest before preparing it. Those who want to check the freshness can apply two methods: look at the eyes of the fish - the clearer the eye the fresher the fish; or press the fish body - the more elastic the meat the fresher.
Those fish which contain fat (tuna, mackerel, lapu-lapu, sardines) have reddish colored meat while those that do not (bangus, catfish, mudfish, tilapia) have white meat.
Bangus (milkfish) is most peculiar to Philippine cuisine. They are a shallow salt water fish which feed on algae and are grown in coastal fish pens. They taste like sardines but have many more bones. One fish normally makes one serving. The best bangus is said to come from the fish pens of Dagupan City.
Lapu-Lapu (Grouper Fish) is one of the most delicious Philippine fish, and even it is not rare it is more ex-pensive than the other fish commonly found; therefore it is seldom eaten in homes but mostly served in res-taurants. There are three kinds of Lapu-Lapu, the red, the spotted, and the black. The black is the best, being softer and juicier than the others. It's also the most expensive of the three. Some Lapu-Lapu can grow to an amaz-ing size, to a weight of more than 50 kilos. Those served in restaurants, however, are of a size that makes one fish one serving.
Similar to but rarer than Lapu-Lapu are Maming, Panther and Suno. All three are considered an adventure (and not necessarily a cheap one) to seafood gourmets.
Blue Marlin is common in Southern Philippine waters, and it is liked not only by game anglers but gourmets as well. As the Blue Marlin is a big fish it's served cut into steaks. Of course it is milder than meat but as in the case of meat, a serving of Blue Marlin gets its taste mainly from the sauce going with it. Contrary to what is the case for pork and beef, the belly is the best part of the Blue Marlin, not the back; whereas the belly is soft, the back is slightly tough. Those who don't mind the bones may order the fin of the Blue Marlin; it's taste is somehow sweeter than that of the belly.
Tanguigui is a large mackerel com-mon in Philippine waters. With its high fat content it has a meaty taste. Seafood res-taurants commonly serve it fried. However, Spanish restaurants and delicatessen stores of five star hotels also sell it raw and smoked.
Galunggong is the most common fish prepared in homes but less often served in restaurants, particularly not the classy ones. It's usually fried or grilled. Other common fish prepared in homes but not that often in the better restaurants are talakitok and dalag which are usually served grilled. Sapsap is a common smaller fish; however the savoring of this fish is disturbed by its many bones.
European cuisine considers sole one of the best fish; sole is occasionally available in the Philippines, and so is a similar tasting fish, pampano.
Pusit (squid) is prepared grilled, fried, or as adobo. Eel is more common in Chinese than Filipino restaurants.
Shrimp (also called by the Spanish name Gambas) are very affordable in the Philippines and therefore also commonly eaten in homes. The Philippine way of preparing shrimp is to steam them with garlic. They may then be fried or not. A special kind of shrimp is Suahe. Alive they appear as if they have a skin of glass; when steamed they turn bright red. And they not only look more attractive on the plate but they also have a more delicious taste, slightly sweeter than the ordinary kind.
Prawns are much more expensive and therefore only found in better restaurants where they commonly are served grilled.
The lobsters caught in Philippine waters are of a Pacific species, also called rock lobster; they do not have the large claws typical of the so-called Maine lobsters caught in the northern Atlantic.
Alimango is a very delicious Philippine crab with large pincers. In Philippine cuisine, crab is commonly steamed or simmered in coconut milk. Better native restaurants only serve the female alimango as it always carries the spawn (Aligi in Tagalog). The spawn is the most delicious part of the crab; it is red colored, tastes stronger than the rest of the crab, and has a slightly crisp texture. As restaurants, when purchasing crabs from dealers, often specify that they only want female alimango, that sold by ambulant vendors is generally the male. Crab crackers are not common in Philippine homes and simple res-taurants. The original Philippine way of cracking crabs is by banging on them with a spoon.
Curacha is another kind of Philippine crab, but to the gourmet it ranks only second to the alimango. Curacha (in English: red frog crab) is a little bit meatier than the alimango, but females do not carry aligi (spawn).
Coconut Crab is much rarer in restaurants than the two kinds mentioned above. It's meat has a higher fat content than Alimango and Curacha; it's not surpris-ing as it feeds mainly on coconuts. By the way, coconut crabs are interesting animals not only as a dish but also alive. They make their living climbing coconut trees where they bore holes in coconuts and scrape them out with their long pincers.
Three kinds of shellfish are common in Philippine cuisine: oysters (in Tagalog: talaba), mussels (in Tagalog: tahong), and clams (in Tagalog: imbao).
In native and Chinese cuisine, oysters are usually steamed or grilled on the half shell after being marinated in vinegar and onions. Oysters are very cheap in the Philippines. At local restaurants a serving is available for about 20 to 40 pesos.
Mussels are served steamed or in soups. There is a great abundance of tahong on Philippine shores, and therefore they are a poor man's food. Clams are more expensive. As anywhere in the world, they are most commonly served in soups.
The French way of preparing seafood is more elaborate than the na-tive and Chinese styles; in French cuisine seafood is accompanied by fine, sometimes even mysterious sauces which often contain wine as well as cheese.
Oysters, mussels, and clams all can be prepared with a cheese and wine sauce. However, as oysters have the mildest and clams the strongest taste of the three, the sauce for oysters has to be milder, too. Clams can also be served in a combination with little bits of bacon without completely concealing the seafood taste.
Unlike in Europe and the US, to serve oysters raw and chilled with lemon is uncommon in the Philippines.
The most famous French combination of seafood and cheese sauce is lobster a la Thermidor. If prepared in this style the meat is taken out of the lobster, cooked and served in a cheese sauce. The dish may or may not be served in the lobster shell; serving in the shell adds eye appeal but doesn't influence the taste.
Prawns, and even crabs, can be prepared and served Thermidor style. For crabs, however, a slight variation is more common: the preparation a la Newburg.
The meat of lobster, prawns, and crab tastes fairly similar, par-ticularly if prepared Thermidor or Newburg style. As a rule of thumb, lobster has a stronger flavor than prawns or crabs, and crab meat is softer in texture than lobster or prawns.
Last updated: November 22, 2011