“Negros is so blessed,” the urbanite Good Friend C once pointed out, “even your uga here is good.”
I’ve been eating uga, dried and salted fish, all my life I’ve never thought of it as a blessing. In fact, I grew up, like the average Pinoy, regarding uga as food of the poor, the dish we fall back on during the tough and hard times. Uga works well with Pinoys who do not have much budget to go around for meals. Aside from being cheap, a piece of uga can “accompany” a plate of rice, even more, and that can stave off hunger for hours. Too, since it is salted like there was no tomorrow, it can last very long without refrigeration and that adds to its popularity in the Pinoy household.
But uga is no longer limited for the tough times. The last few decades has seen a repositioning of the uga as something that is enjoyed by all, irrespective of class. And with the culinary movement that puts a premium on the local, our uga should conquer not just the domestic dining tables of the rich, but the ones across the seas as well.
C, one of the most well-travelled of The Good Life’s Circle of Friends, pointed out how our uga tabagak or dried salted herring, could go with almost anything at any meal which he has. He fries and debones it and serves it as fillets.
Uga tabagak, of course, has been enjoying a renaissance hereabouts since I think about 20 to 25 years ago, when its popularity started rising, its culinary value expanding from being a simple ordinary dish that’s either fried or grilled, to being bottled as “gourmet tuyo,” soaked in corn or olive oil. Or as an ingredient in the romana or puttanesca sauce for pasta, providing the salty crunch to these spaghetti dishes that makes them even remarkable. Forget the expensive anchovies, uga tabagak can very well take its place in many a recipe, especially the saucy ones. I think Kalipayan Products of Bago city which first brought “Gourmet Tuyo” to the global market, also produces “Salsa Tuyo”, oil-based saue made of tabagak fillets, mushrooms, capers and tomatoes.
But tabagak is just one of the myriad choices we have in the Negrense delicatessen pantry. There is the pinakas, table size fish split in half, salted and dried. Again like the tabagak, the pinakas is enjoying a rediscovery of sorts as young chefs and housewives serve it in many different ways. One housewife I know serves fried pinakas in all her fat- and cholesterol-laden dinners; she does so to cut the humdrum of all that fat and cream and sugar of the rest of the dishes. Her pinakas, which comes all the way from Sicogon island, is always a conversation piece – aside from serving its gustarory purpose, it also attracts talk around the dining table and is usually a nice ice-breaker. “Ay may uga! Oh, there’s dried fish!” is almost always a pleasant surprise to her guests who probably also think, like you and I, that uga is exclusively for the tables of the poor.
Aside from being fried or grilled, the pinakas can also be served with sautéed tomatoes and onions. Most people serve the tomatoes and onions, sometimes fresh, on the side. One matron serves fried pinakas soaking in sautéed tomatoes and onions and all their juices.
Try the version of Cantina Mondo, the Negrense Delicatessen at CitywWalk in Robinson’s Place.
We have, of course, only began to exploit the culinary values of the uga. Years of miseducation which convinced us it was such lowly food and is only for the poor has also kept us from fully developing the uga to its full potential.
Don’t look now, but the world which eats anchovies and feasts on bacalao should welcome our uga into its pantries and kitchens, where it can hold its own. When it does, I think we would have found a new commodity to export.*