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It’s that time of the year again. The Lenten Season. When our culinary thoughts turn to fish and seafood for the table, especially on Fridays. Some would think it’s a penitential sacrifice to abstain from meat for a whole day. But, for me, it’s not at all. Filipinos are spoiled with choices of fish and seafood in our country. And there is nothing like fresh seafood, no matter how you cook it — fried, poached, baked, grilled, steamed, pangat, paksiw, sinigang, daing, smoked or tinapa, dried, stewed, and even “cooked” in vinegar or lime juice like in kinilaw or ceviche. Yes, there are plenty of fish in the sea. Especially in the seas of the Philippines, which are blessed with over 2,400 species of fish. This does not include other marine life such as shellfish and seaweeds.

As a little girl, I used to hate going to the palengke with my mother in Quiapo and at the Seaside Market in Baclaran to buy fish. And now, who would have thought I would come to enjoy going to fresh fish markets all over the country? Poking, smelling, peeking at the gills. At the Farmers’ Market in Cubao. The Seafood Market in Real, Quezon. Cebu’s famous Taboan Market. The Tagbilaran Fish Market in Bohol. And when I can’t go to these faraway fish markets, our own neighborhood Saturday Market (with chitchat and exchange of recipes with my favorite Lola Fishmonger) and South Supermarket in Alabang.

Aside from the usual bangus (milkfish), lapulapu (grouper), and galunggong (round scad), I love discovering the other hundreds of fish our seas, rivers, and lakes bestow on us. And the second best part of fish marketing is swapping and discussing recipes with the local vendors, who are always eager to share their own favorites. Seeing the eager look in their eyes as they describe how they cook their favorite seafood dish is such a joy. And then trying out the recipes on the fish I bought from them, especially the ones I just learned about that day. Like hiwas, otherwise known as chabita or chabet. In English, it’s a moonfish. Boiled in a sour stew (pinangat) and then deep-fried until super-crunchy that you could eat even the fins and tail, it’s a favorite in Batangas. Second only to tawilis.

Anthony Bourdain once wrote in his book “Kitchen Confidential” many years ago not to buy fish on Mondays as the fish markets in New York were closed over the weekend and, hence, Monday fish stocks were not fresh. But we are fortunate here in the Philippines. Being an archipelago with rich marine resources, our fishing industry is incredibly active that you can count on getting fresh fish and seafood every day, even in supermarkets. I do prefer to buy early in the day so that the fish are as fresh as can be, given the “commute” they had to make.

The abundance of our fish and marine resources is something we must be profoundly grateful for. And must take great care of. Other countries are not as blessed. I can only wish and pray that greed, over-exploitation, ignorance, and mindless disregard will not deplete these blessings.

And, on that note, fish be to you and grace from Him.

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