Bagoong: the Ultimate Umami Bomb

This piece was originally posted at Filipino Kitchen by fellow blogger Sarahlynn Pablo.  Head on over to their site for more musings, recipes, and happenings in the Windy City.

How to Make Bagoong

by Sarahlynn Pablo

Homemade bagoong, ready for aging.

An Historical Defense of Bagoong, by Dr. Jose Rizal

“Their daily fare is composed of: rice crushed in wooden pillars and when cooked is called morisqueta (this is the staple throughout the land); cooked fish which they have in abundance; pork, venison, mountain buffaloes which they call carabaos, beef and fish which they know is best when it has started to rot and stink.” – Antonio de Morga, Spanish lieutenant-governor of the Philippines, in “Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas” (Events of the Philippine Islands), late 16th century.

“This is another preoccupation of the Spaniards who, like any other nation, treat food to which they are not accustomed or is unknown to them, with disgust… This fish that Morga mentions, that cannot be known to be good until it begins to rot, all on the contrary, is bagoong and those who have eaten it and tasted it know that it neither is nor should be rotten.”

– Annotations from Dr. Jose Rizal’s re-edition of Antonio de Morga’s historical text, 1890. Both quotes from Professor Ambeth Ocampo’s “Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures” (2001).

Bringin’ the Funk

“Your auntie is making bagoong, go and help her,” Mom said.

During my recent visit to the Philippines, my mom and aunt showed me how to make bagoong. Sure, I may rarely, if ever, make bagoong myself in Chicago, but there’s something comforting in knowing that I know how.

Bagoong, the funky, fermented seafood paste, is a mainstay of any Filipino’s kitchen. It’s a salty, aged, rich fish flavor–the blue cheese of the seas. It can be made with different types of seafood. Bagoong from shrimp appears pink or mauve in color, and is studded with the black beady eyes of the baby crustaceans. Made from crab, the paste is dark orange; from anchovies or sardines, it is a dark reddish brown. Bagoong flavors many Filipino dishes and is also served on the side to compliment dishes like Kare-Kare (a savory peanut oxtail braise), and snacks like unripe green mangoes, steamed rice or saba bananas. Bagoong is a relatively inexpensive protein that is shelf stable and can last a long time.

A sardine in salt.

A sardine in salt

I’d learned from my mom that the bagoong she ate growing up was always homemade. My mom and her sisters grew up on a farm and my grandparents were farmers. One of my grandmother’s sisters was in charge of most of the cooking, including the bagoong making, which was done in large, earthen jars. My mom and aunt told me about their Auntie Pelagia. She was very particular about making food for the house linis, or clean — from how the livestock were raised to how the water well was kept. She would not eat bagoong made by someone else.

I experienced Filipino food differently, to say the least, growing up outside of Chicago. I’d only ever seen mass-produced bagoong sold at the Asian store. By necessity of the climate differences and distance between places, many of the critical ingredients of Filipino cuisine that I had growing up were processed: frozen milkfish and malunggay leaves, canned coconut milk, dry tamarind soup mix, jars of bagoong. Often the fresh equivalents of these key flavorings or ingredients were unavailable.

I want to be careful not to romanticize these differences or to say that one way is better than the other. Having these convenience items enabled my working parents to share their cuisine with me. This was the ‘80s: pre-Internet, pre-Amazon Prime days. We were at the mercy of whatever was imported by local retailers or whatever could be smuggled in by the intrepid relative returning from the Philippines. Not that I know from experience.

Mendoza-Pablo+family+early+1980s

My family in the early 1980s (L to R): my aunt, Dr. Mendoza; my Lolo Aniceto; my Lola Maxima, my mom Corazon, and me on her lap

Making bagoong at home is now much less common in the Philippines. Economic factors and regional or taste preferences vary the preparation, processing and final taste of bagoong. Most of the bagoong produced in the Philippines is done by large food processing companies, but some small-scale producers sell in the provincial and village markets. Fishermen pre-salt and sell their catch to middlemen, who transport the fish from ports across the Philippines to Manila and sell them to large-scale processors. In these industrial facilities, fish or shrimp are fermented by the ton in cement vats.

Making Bagoong

The fermentation time varies widely. In the Visayas, bagoong ferments for only a week. In Ilocos, the northern provinces, bagoong is prefered to age for at least six months and up to two years. Lengthening the aging of bagoong intensifies the flavor.

My aunt, Dr. Leonarda Mendoza, a microbiologist and former professor of food technology at the University of the Philippines, explained the process of bagoong production to me. The recipe below is in our family’s Ilocos regional style.

This is all you need to make your own bagoong: clean glass jar(s) with lids; fresh anchovies or sardines; salt; a clean place for storage; time.

Philippine salt, made from boiled seawater and packaged in nipa leaves.

Philippine salt packed in nipa leaves

  1. Wash the fish, handling them carefully to keep them whole as much as possible.
  2. Remove other species of fish that may be mixed in with the fresh anchovies or sardines. Sardines and anchovies of the same size can be prepared together for  bagoong. Separate any eels or squid which may have made their way into the catch. Different species of fish will ferment differently.

    Remove other species of fish, like this eel.

    Remove other species such as this eel

  3. After separating, measure the anchovies by volume. This is important to determine the proper volume of salt. The proportion my aunt used was 1 part fish to 3.5 parts salt. Different salts can be used for the recipe. Boiled salt or solar salt is preferred. In Ilocos, salt is made by boiling and concentrating seawater, or by evaporating seawater.

    Adding a proportional amount salt to the fish.

    Adding a proportionate amount of salt to the fish

  4. In a large bowl, mix the salt with the fish a little at a time. Gently mix with your hands, being careful to keep fish whole as much as possible. Depending on the salt used and the proportion, some of the salt should already begin to dissolve at this stage.
  5. Spoon the fish and salt mix into the jars in layers for fermentation. The layers do not have to be carefully arranged, but they should not contain pockets of air. Oxygen will cause the fats in the sardines (an especially fatty fish) to rot in an undesirable way. Using a spoon, gently press down the layers as you add more of the fish and salt mix to the jar. Turn the glass jar and notice if there are air pockets.
  6. After the jar is filled with fish, add a layer of salt to the top. As the salt breaks down the fish, water will be naturally released and form its own brine, protecting the fish from rot. Gases will also form and push their way to the top of the jar.
  7. Clean the sides and the mouth of the jar well, to prevent attracting flies or other pests. Seal the jars with their proper lids. Take clean cloth, paper or leaves and tie them over the sealed jars with ribbon or twine.

    Clean the jars well before sealing and aging.

    Clean the jars well before sealing and aging

  8. After three days, reopen the jars. Push the solids down slowly if there are any floating in the accumulated water. You can mix the bagoong to release the gases from inside. Clean the outside and mouth of the jar and reseal in the same manner. In three weeks, a reddish brown color will develop. Eventually the fish flesh will all disintegrate and the bones will settle to the bottom.
  9. Check on the bagoong every week to ensure solids are submerged and stir gently to release any gases from the mixture.
  10. After at least six months, the bagoong is ready to be used. When taking some bagoong from the jar, before using in a recipe or serving with a finished dish, remove any remaining fish heads or bones from the paste with a fork and spoon. Clean and reseal the bagoong container as before.
  11. Optional. Patis (fish sauce) can also be collected from the bagoong after the desired fermentation time has elapsed. Some liquid should be kept covering the bagoong to prevent drying or rotting. Drain off the liquid for patis and save in a separate container. Clean and reseal the bagoong container as before.
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