Binukakang dalag (split mudfish)

In the menu of Bulawan Floating Restaurant in Pililla, it is called crispy dalag. Split-open, the whole mudfish is deep-fried until a crisp golden crust forms on the surface. In a place in Tanay called Kainan sa Tabi ng Lawa (eatery by the lake), the same dish is called binukakang dalag. In much the same way that I cannot think of a proper translation for the word malansa, I have no translation either for binukaka. The root word is buka (open). Bukaka means legs spread wide open and binukaka would mean forced to spread wide open. I know that it conjures naughty erotic images but I doubt if binukakang dalag can satisfy prurient interests.

My version of binukakang dalag is grilled, not deep-fried. And, yes, it is possible for the fish to have a crisp golden surface without frying. The trick is to brush the fish with oil before putting it on the grill. In my case, that’s the convection oven (a turbo broiler will work although you will need a large turbo broiler to accommodate a whole dalag that is at least 800 grams in weight).

But let’s start at the beginning. In local wet markets, dalag (mudfish) is sold fresh. Fresh as in live. You will see all the dalag inside a net, you specify how many you want (or the equivalent in live weight) and the fish monger dips her hand inside the net and catches the fish for you. He hits its head with a mallet and, when it is still, it is gutted and cleaned. Before the fish monger starts cleaning the fish, say that you want it prepared a la daing so that the fish scales are not removed and, instead of cutting the fish into portions, it is split open from head to tail, and the head and spine scored in places.

When you get home, rub the fish all over with rock salt to remove the sliminess. Then, season the fish. You can stick with salt and only salt, the preference of most so that nothing competes with the natural fresh flavor of the fish. Of course, there’s nothing wrong if you want to sprinkle the fish with pepper and herbs. You can even drizzle some kalamansi juice on the fish. Whatever seasonings you want to use, use them. When you have added all the spices and seasonings that you want, brush the fish with cooking oil — not the skin but the meat of the fish.

Cook in a pre-heated 200oC convection oven (grill setting) for 15 to 20 minutes or until the fish is lightly browned. DO NOT OVERCOOK. Nothing ruins fresh fish faster than overcooking.

Mix together some kalamansi juice, soy sauce and crushed chili peppers, and serve on the side as a dipping sauce.