Labahita (surgeonfish) with spicy coconut cream sauce

Filipino and Thai cooking intersect in many ways as we share a lot of native ingredients including coconut cream or milk, lemongrass and chili. Dishes of fish, meat or chicken cooked with coconut milk or cream and a motley of vegetables are found in both cuisines. Labahita (surgeonfish) with spicy coconut cream sauce

I thought I’d create a dish that illustrates that intersection.

This fish with spicy coconut cream sauce was cooked just like any Filipino ginataan (i.e., with coconut milk or cream) dish. With a Thai twist, however, by using galangal instead of ginger, and the addition of lemongrass stalks and kaffir lime leaves.

I wish that you can smell it just by looking at the photo. Because smelling it even before digging into the fish does things to the appetite that make eating a sybaritic exercise rather than a mere way to get rid of hunger. In fact, the aroma almost induces hunger.

You can use any firm, fleshy fish for this dish. I used labahita because it was available. I’d really recommend large whole tilapia which I would have used except that there were none the other day when I was in the market. All I could find were tilapia no larger than my hand. Seeing them made me wonder why such small fish were being harvested. But that’s another story.


  • 1 whole labahita or other firm, fleshy fish (cleaned and gutted), about 800 grams

    For the sauce:

    2 tbsps. of vegetable cooking oil
    2 green finger chilis and 2 red finger chilis, julienned (see tips)
    1 stalk of lemongrass, white portion only (see tips)
    1 tsp. of crushed galangal
    1 kaffir lime leaf
    2 cloves of garlic, minced
    1 onion or 2 shallots, finely sliced
    1 tomato, roughly chopped
    1 c. of coconut cream (see post on how to extract coconut cream)
    patis (fish sauce), to taste


  1. Score the fish. Rub with salt. Broil, grill or pan fry.

    While the fish cooks, make the sauce. Heat the cooking oil. Add the julienned chili, garlic, galangal, onion (or shallots), tomato, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf. Saute until fragrant and the vegetables start to soften. Pour in the coconut cream. Cook just until the coconut cream boils. Season with patis.

    Place the cooked fish on a serving platter. Pour the sauce over and around it, with the vegetables on top.

    Serve hot. Preferably with rice.

Cooking time (duration): 15 minutes

Number of servings (yield): 2 to 3

Meal type: lunch

Connie Veneracion

Hello, my name is Connie Veneracion. I cook, I shoot, I write. But I don't do the laundry. I don't like housekeeping very much either... (more about me)

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3 Responses

  1. becky says:

    i remember my lola and i used to buy labahita in the blumentritt market and she’d have the fishwife fillet the fish before us. then she’d make it into fried fish fillets. she prided herself with that dish.
    in those days, we had none of those heaping, readily available dory fish fillets we now see in supermarkets.

  2. Connie says:

    I still do that even with the proliferation of frozen fish fillets. With labahita, tilapia, talakitok, salmon, tuna… Partly because I like bring home the head and bones to make fish stock.

  3. Mrs. Kolca says:

    This dish looks delish. Perfect for the rainy days talaga ang anything na may gata. I am a fan of fish and seafood, so I think swak sa’kin to.

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