From maya-maya to hasa-hasa: Our local fish names and the Pinoy love for reduplication 2
Illustration by Chris Clemente
Food & Drink

From maya-maya to hasa-hasa: Our local fish names and the Pinoy love for reduplication

Awarded an Honorable Mention in the 2019 Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Award, the writer shines a light on an amusing facet of our love for fish. By ROSY MINA
| Apr 10 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 Rosy Mina, a freelance writer with the Film Development Council of the Philippines.


A lot of Filipino words are marked by reduplication, a linguistics term referring to the exact (or almost exact) repetition of a root word, word stem or the whole word. Whether they are traditional words like bababa, dada, gabi-gabi, nganga, saysay, and sisi or colloquial terms such as gaga, eng-eng, wawa and walwal, the reduplication game in Filipino is strong.

Reduplication was inherited by the Filipino language from its Malayo-Polynesian roots. Such linguistic characteristic is evident in languages of nations in East Asia, the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Aside from being present in Philippine vocabulary, reduplication is also common in Filipino names. There are celebrities nicknamed Zsa Zsa and Ai-Ai, and politicians called Junjun and Nene. My relatives have nicknames such as Ming Ming, Pepe, Toto, Yeye, Nene, An-An and Gai-Gai, and I have friends named Dada, Tintin and Lala.

The same can be said about Philippine fishes. Research shows that over a dozen local fishes have not been spared from having names that bear reduplication, and this rundown involves exact reduplication only. First up is hasa-hasa, which is a short mackerel. It is also known locally as kabayas. Second on the list is the red snapper called maya-maya. Its bright red color makes it stand out in shallow reefs, while its delectable meat makes it a favorite in restaurants.

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Named after Cebu’s native chieftain who became a hero during the “Battle of Mactan” against Spanish colonizers, the lapu-lapu or grouper is a pricey specialty, commonly cooked in light soy sauce or in a pickled fried fish recipe (escabeche). The lapu-lapu’s other local name bears reduplication as well: bato-bato.

Pla-pla, meanwhile, is the name for large freshwater tilapia or St. Peter’s fish. The weight requirement for a tilapia to be called pla-pla is more than 1 kilogram. The tiny yellowstripe scad or salay-salay is known for yellow details on its tail and body. The slipmouth or ponyfish that is called sapsap is another small flat fish below six inches long. Its other local name is laway-laway, most likely pertaining to its slimy body with small scales.

The parrotfish is known as mol-mol or loro. Consumption of this colorful fish, however, is being questioned because of its importance in preserving coral reefs. Mol-mol eats dead corals and algae and excretes coral sand.

Next on the list is a Philippine fish staple. Its nickname is just two letters, GG, which is the short form of galunggong, known as the poor man’s fish because it is known to be affordable. The mackerel scad GG is sometimes spelled as Gigi.

Additionally, dagum-dagum is a seahorse, buan-buan is an Indo-Pacific tarpon, bidbid in English is Hawaiian ladyfish or ten pounder, haol-haol has the English name sardine, lao-lao (or lawlaw) is a deep-body sardinella, talang-talang or dorado has the English names dolphinfish and leather jacket, and bilong-bilong, which also goes by the name chabita, is a moonfish.

To make the list extend to Number 16, I will include none other than the National Fish of the Philippines: the milkfish locally called bangus. So where is the reduplication in bangus? Well, my research has revealed that the scientific name of bangus is Chanos chanos.

Whether steamed, boiled, fried, stewed, pickled, poached or cooked in broth, the aforementioned fishes which are Filipino diet staples are so tasty. They would surely make one utter “Nom nom,” “Nyam nyam,” “Chomp chomp” or “Yum yum” because of its namnam, meaning delicious taste.

These fishes that have names with reduplication go well with rice or pansit habhab (noodle dish from Lucban). It would also be nice to eat them with kwek-kwek (a street food of deep-fried, orange batter-coated quail eggs) on the side. After eating a hearty fish meal, there must be room for dessert like sapin-sapin, a layered rice cake or agar-agar, a gelatin-like substance from red algae. All these musings uncover more Filipino food names with reduplication… but I will reserve them for another writing.


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