Paksyo or pinaksyo is fish stewed in vinegar and aromatics. Cooking methods range from the very basic using only vinegar, garlic, onion and tomatoes to more complex methods involving seasonal, preferential, or even fish-specific ingredients such as libas, guava, or other leaves, sour fruits such as iba and batwan, peppers ranging from the mild pa-itan to the fiery tangla–langit, thickeners such as gata or coconut cream, and in my case a little. In some instances when a little hint of sweetness is noted in the swirl of acidity and heat, in a very Negrense manner, I suspect a dash of muscovado sugar is added.
Pinamalhan is another preparation of paksyo where the dish is simmered until all liquids are almost gone and a drizzle of oil is added to bind with the remnants of the now intensely flavored reduction. This sparse remaining film is harvested painstakingly by scraping with a spoon and dripped on rice which is then mixed by hand until each grain is coated and every mouthful bursts with the flavors of sour-salt-savory-fat. Oh and there’s the fish too.
FISH BE WITH US
Fish like sap-sap, salmonete, dalinu-an, gurayan are small, fragile, sometimes bony and are usually prepared in a minimalist manner and cooked gently with just a simple boil and simmer. Marot, bilong–bilong, lilang, and other fleshier fish can be stewed longer and allowed to rest for a day or two for flavors to seep in and then fried to a crisp. Bangrus or the ubiquitous milkfish is simply gutted, scaled, and cut into unequal and undemocratic parts; the head, two or three middle slices, and the detested tail. A “picky eater” based on my previous feature on kare–kare would savor the intricacies of disassembling the head. The favored ones will always get the middle slice. This coveted piece has the easiest bones to pick and the thickest layer of glistening fat and silky belly meat. The tail, with its profusion of bones embedded in meat, is the least liked part often left untouched and relegated to those who arrive late to the table.
I never liked paksyo when I was a child. The meal is a tedious process of picking meat from the bones and getting pricked or missing a bone and having it lodge in an inaccessible tissue in your esophagus. Traumatizing for a tiny yield of meat per fish. If after chowing down half a bunch of bananas in an attempt to dislodge the fish bone fails, a search begins for someone born in breech or “suli’ in your barangay to massage your throat in a magical folk belief that that person’s touch dislodges that pesky bone that is now seriously embedding itself deeper and deeper and deeper after each excruciating swallow.
It also does not fare well as school packed lunch. It is looked down as peasant food and has an aroma that lingers and sticks to you and in the often cruel and judgmental world of elementary school, it is a sight and scent you don’t want to be associated with.
All these eventually changed when I became aware of the economics of growing up in a working class household. Life has dictated that a daily piece of fried pork chop or drumstick per family member is not feasible. I had no choice but to accept and eventually appreciate the nuances in texture and flavor of all the different edible parts picked from a fish no matter how miniscule.
I discovered that a fish head has the most succulent meat and encloses a tiny waxy but creamy brain. The fish belly is always fat and the stomach cavity, depending on the cleaning and gutting, encloses a tiny flavorful blob which tastes like a tiny dab of sea-butter.
In some cases, it contains a tiny sac of roe with a grainy texture and the slightest nutty flavor that you extract and savor from tiny fish to tiny fish.
The end result of a meal is always a visual disaster and never ever pretty. The plate will have a pile of bone, fins, and skull fragments that only a starved cat can find appetizing.
No carb left for the cat because a conscientious child would always have no grain of rice left on a plate.