Tita Nana at work and her sarciadong aquarium
Food & Drink Features

‘Sarciadong aquarium’ and the longheld tradition of repurposing yesterday’s fried fish

Awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2019 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award, the writer reminisces about his family’s Tondo carinderia and the way the fish of the day is reincarnated as the glorious sarciado. BY SAMUEL EVARDONE
| Mar 15 2020

Now on its 17th year, the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award is the first food writing award in the Philippines. Dedicated to the memory of the pioneering food anthropologist and dean of Philippine food columnists, the Award aims to inspire research into Philippine culinary culture and to develop a pool of new talents in food literature and food journalism. Awarded honorable mention, this essay is penned by Samuel Evardone, a Communications Manager at OKADA Manila.

My family has a carinderia (eatery). It’s been around since 1972, maybe even earlier, because Mom still remembers how she slept as a tyke on the floor of their kitchen-turned-bedroom (or bedroom-turned-kitchen) while her father tiptoed around the space at six in the morning, almost hopscotching to avoid his six children while carrying a kaldero (big pot) that contained boiling beef soup for the carinderia’s early serving of nilaga

At 47 years old, Ka Eling’s Kusina still serves a vital role in its Tondo neighborhood.

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You had to be special if you owned a carinderia in Tondo in the 1970s. Almost every eskinita (alley) had a panciteria (noodle house), a lugawan (rice porridge place) or a paluto (cooked orders to-go) that could easily poach your suki (loyal customer). Nevertheless, Lolo and Lola (grandparents) had a cauldron of different customers coming in: from the jeepney drivers and telephone linemen to other carinderia owners and barangay officials. It’s hard not to imagine them all cramped on one long wooden bench at 8 a.m. while my then-9-year-old mother, now up and awake, fishes for her own breakfast straight from Lolo’s kaldero. It’s another long day for her and her siblings because the hungry patrons need food and the plates won’t wash themselves. 

Every Filipino family has a Tito Boy. Ours is a butcher extraordinaire

Now 56, Mom still serves our suki with the daily staples. The estante (display shelf) has expanded into a bountiful selection of local favorites: bistek (beef steak), kaldereta (meat stewed in tomato sauce), adobo (stew in vinegar and garlic), bopis (stew of minced pork lungs and heart). Any other ulam (viand) whether inihaw or pinirito for almusal or merienda (grilled, fried, breakfast, snack) has found its way into the carinderia’s fleet of chafing dishes. Don’t dare her, but Mom could recite the menu in her sleep. Thankfully, the bedroom is not the kitchen anymore and the long wooden bench has been shelved to make room for 36 seats. 

A licensed chemist back in the day, Tita Tana traded her beakers and flasks to run the carinderia

Lunchtime is beautiful chaos in the carinderia, with customers flocking left and right jockeying to get their orders in before someone else takes their seat. If they’re lucky, they’ll get first dibs on the sarciadong aquarium. 

With over 20 dishes served every day, customers are faced with hard little decisions. Sinigang o pochero? Kare-kare o bopis? Bulalo o menudo?

It’s an open secret that today’s sarciado is yesterday’s pinirito (fried fish). Be it the fillets of labahita (surgeon fish) or the bonier bangus (milkfish), it’s definitely going to end up swimming in a tomato-based sauce with beaten eggs when it’s not consumed in its fried form. When people ask Mom “Magkano dito?” (how much is this), she always answers with a smirk because she has to explain that not all fish are created (and consequently priced) equal. The spiel usually goes like this: If you’re feeling fancy, go for the lapu-lapu (grouper). It’s luscious, tender, and you’ll have no problem dealing with its tinik (bones). When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with the fish that fought against foreign invaders.* 

Tilapia, bangus, galunggong, every fish is welcome in the sarciadong aquarium

Now, if the customer is on a budget, Mom would recommend the bangus. For fifty pesos, it’s half the price of the lapu-lapu and it also has a nice taste. The only real concern here is if you have the patience to get the meat from its bones. Some are cat-like in their methods, even preferring the bangus just for the challenge or the familiarity of it. One of my titos (uncles) jokes that a sukieats with his eyes closed not because he wants to savor the flavors of the sarciado but because he wants to be with his dearly departed wife soon and a bone might do the trick. 

A customer enjoying a peaceful meal past the lunchtime chaos

Like how artistas (actors/actresses) get repackaged into different (or “daring”) roles, the sarciado is the recasting of the forgotten star of the sea. Add water to the trinity of sautéed garlic, onions and tomatoes. Then sprinkle some salt. Put the fish in the pot plus some beaten eggs, let it simmer a bit, so the sauce swaddles the fish, giving it a sweet and salty taste that’s best paired with hot rice. Throw in some spring onions and wansoy (cilantro) and the glow-up is complete.

Carinderias are not the only guilty ones here, but households are notorious food recyclers too. It’s almost Filipino tradition to eat leftover Noche Buena (Christmas Eve feast) from the 26th until the preparation for Media Noche (New Year’s Eve Feast). Remember how you magically had lechon paksiw (stewed roasted pig in vinegar) on your table last year after the 25th? That was your dad being creative with leftover lechon.

Another food hack that I’ve discovered was how Lola turned unbought bangus tail into lumpia (spring roll). Most customers ignore the tail because it contains most of the fish’s tinik, so Lola repurposes it into delicious golden-brown fish rolls that are a hit among customers. Sometimes it’s really about the packaging. Call it diskarte (strategy), call it a way to help the carinderia earn more but if it was not for Lola’s resourcefulness, all the fish would be swimming in food waste. 

Today, 47 years since it served its first suki, the carinderia continues to thrive and feed the local community. My family makes sure nothing is wasted, from the countless stories of my Lolo and Lola to the reimagining of fish.

*Lapu-lapu, 16th-century ruler of Mactan who is said to have repelled the early Spanish conquistadores in a battle that killed their head, Ferdinand Magellan.

 

Ka Eling’s Kusina, 1142 Asuncion Extension, Tondo, Manila, (02) 8245-3814

Photos by Sophie Casasola

For more information, visit Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award on Facebook.