Thursday, July 19, 2012

Rellenong Bangus

"You can't make me eat bang-gus, baby." That undying declaration greeted my sister when she told her Fil-Canadian then-fiance (now her husband)  that she'll be cooking bangus for dinner. He, like my husband and many others out there, absolutely detest bangus (milkfish) because it's full of fine fish bones that even those with good eyesight can't get out entirely at times.

Presenting my brother-in-law with boneless bangus will not work either. The moment he sees it's bangus and the milky flesh of it, he will reject it outright. But my sister made true of her claim when she said "I'll make you eat milkfish, baby, and you will like it!" My sister's secret? Rellenong bangus.

Rellenong bangus is a special dish, which is actually stuffed bangus.  However, preparing it is so time consuming that it is served only during special occasions. We used to spend about 3-4 hours to prepare and cook relleno until some innovative individual came up with a technique that lessened the whole prep time to nearly half. Let's talk about the ingredients first.

325 grams bangus
120 grams ground pork (preferably with 10%-20% fat)
1/2 cup finely diced carrots
1/2 cup finely diced potatoes
1/4 cup minced onions
1 tbls minced garlic
1/2 tbsp oyster sauce
1/4 pc of pork cube
salt and pepper to taste
1 beaten egg
4 tbsp vegetable oil for cooking the filling
Enough oil to deep fry your rellenong bangus.

Bangus Skin Marinade
1 tbsp calamansi juice (or lemon/lime)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/8 tsp ground black pepper

My parents and family maid used to prepare the fish by taking out the gills and internal organs out before beating the poor fish to death. This is to done in order to get the fish meat out so it can be prepped for relleno. The downside of this is that pounding takes 15-30 mins, and picking out the broken pieces of fish bones is around 30 minutes to an hour. You really have to pick through the meat as the fish bones have been reduced to bits.

Nowadays, you can have your rellenong bangus prepped for you easily by your fish monger.  Just tell them that you're using the fish for relleno and the will clean as well as remove the meat for you using a long, specially made spatula. I prefer to remove the meat myself, though, because:

  • Every single bit of meat is carefully scraped off. You fish monger is busy, so he or she will just go and scrape away, not bothering to see all the meat is removed.
  • I like the challenge. I want to do things by myself, and being 100% hands on with the bangus is a fulfilling task for me.

SM Supermarket, however, has a policy of against prepping bangus for relleno, and I understand them. An inexperienced individual can push too hard and puncture the skin of the fish, causing the filling to spill out.  Ironically, I punctured the skin of my bangus on the 3rd time I prepared bangus and not on the first.  That's over-confidence for you. :P  Please watch the video below how to remove the meat yourself.  However, remember to bend the tail end first before you do so, not unlike what I did - broke the end bone when I was nearly half-way done with the scraping. Be careful to keep the head attached to the skin, this will be useful for excess filling and presentation.

The skin should be marinated for at least 30 minutes. This will help the fish have some flavor since the skin can be eaten along with the meat.

I boiled the meat in a pot filled with enough water to cover up the fish meat. You have the option of adding a bit of salt and a small knob or an eighth of an inch of crushed ginger. I boiled the meat for 15-20 minutes to get rid of the fishy smell, but you can also place the meat in a steamer for 30 minutes.  Steaming will be better as you don't have to cope with the scum that will form with the boiling.

Preparing the Filling for Rellenong Bangus

  1. Once the meat is cooked, let it cool to room temperature and carefully take out every single fish bone that you can find. It's easier if you got the meat whole as the fish bones are intact. If you're having problems, like I did, a magnifying glass from a neighbor or relative will be very convenient to use.  Just pile a couple of heavy books and tape the handle of the magnifying glass on the top to keep it in place. 
  2. Heat up a large pan and place 2 tbsp oil once the pan starts to smoke. Stir in the ground meat and stir fry until golden brown.  Place the meat at the side of the pan then add in the remaining oil. 
  3. Add your potatoes. Once the potatoes are crispy and light golden brown in color, add in your garlic, onions, and carrots. Stir until aromatic, then add your oyster sauce and pork cubes>
  4. Stir everything well, including the ground pork and fish meat to evenly distribute your seasonings. Add a touch of salt and pepper to taste if you prefer.
  5. Mix everything well then take the rellenong bangus filling out of the pan and into a bowl. Let it cool really well at room temperature so you won't cook the beaten egg that you will add later.

Stuffing the Rellenong Bangus

This is the next tricky part of preparing rellenong bangus since the wrong technique can:
  • Give you a thin, or over-stuffed rellenong bangus
  • Tear the skin
  • Produce air pocket

Once you're ready to stuff and cook your rellenong bangus, gradually add the beaten egg to the filling one tablespoon at a time until your filling is wet but not swimming in egg. The egg will serve as a binder to prevent your filling from going all over the place when you cut the fish later

Use a teaspoon at first to fill up the bangus skin. Go slow and carefully at first since you have to push the filling right up to the bottom. You can try inverting the skin halfway, but that can be tricky. scoop out a filling and push it through the skin all the way down to the tail.  Don't wait for the filling to collect at the top before you push it down.  Stuff the bangus all the way up to the head, and sew the head to the skin if necessary, especially if the head is cut off the skin accidentally while stuffing.

Cooking the Rellenong Bangus

Fill up a large wok with enough oil, approximately 350ml - 500ml, depending on how deep and wide your pan will be.  Heat up the oil and test by placing a bamboo skewer/bbq stick right down at the center of the pan.  If you see the ends bubbling, the oil is just perfect for frying.

Carefully, and gingerly place the rellenong bangus in the pan with the use of a pair of tongs and spatula.  Be really careful as the skin can cause the oil to splatter. If your pan "spits" oil, don't be afraid to cover it as the bangus cooks.  No need to cook it for too long; keep the flame in medium heat and cook until the skin is brown and crispy.

If you are, just like my cousin, unreasonably and unusually afraid of oil splatters, then you can bake your rellenong bangus instead.  Pre-heat your oven at 450 degrees F and place your rellenong bangus that has been previously basted with oil.  This is better for individuals who must undergo a low-fat diet, or for individuals who cannot stand anything that is deep fried.

Now, there are several things that can go wrong with frying your rellenong bangus:

  1. Your fish can stick.  Unless you have a large non-stick pan, your fish will have the tendency to stick to the bottom of your pot. It happened to me earlier, and the result is a broken bangus skin with the filling spilling all over. I was impatient to get the fish cooked as my daughter was already screaming for food.  If you don't have a non-stick pan, time the frying of your bangus as you would your fried daing. That may mean frying your fish in medium heat for 5-10 minutes per side, and yes that includes the upper and lower back if you are shallow frying.  You're lucky if you can do deep fry as you only need 5-10 total until the fish skin is crispy.
  2. Your fish can be too big for your pan. I chose a large fish, thinking it will be our lunch and dinner and I don't have to prep that long just in time for us to eat.  Turns out that my largest pan cannot accommodate my fish. 
  3. The skin can break. You really have to treat your bangus with care.  Remember that the skin has lost all its natural connection to flesh, so it's very elastic and very prone to breakage.  Do not use sharp edged tongs, and only use a really flat spatula for turning and handling your fish. Needless to say, do not under any circumstances handle your fish unless absolutely necessary. 
  4. You can burn your fish. Fish will stick if you cook it on low heat, hence the need for high temperatures.  However, if you don't look at your fish closely, that high heat can be the death of your fish.  Be careful when frying your fish and don't go anywhere unless your fish is cooked.
And there you have it! Rellenong bangus is definitely exhausting to prepare, but it can be your family's favorite. Very few people are willing to make rellenong bangus, and mastering the skill to prepare and cook one is indeed worthy of praise.