The other day, we went to the market for fish and vegetables. As usual, I gravitated toward my favorite fish seller whose staples are live hito (catfish) and dalag (mudfish). I was asked how I wanted them prepared, I stated my preferences, and… See, in the Philippines, part of the sale of fish includes the cleaning service. You tell the seller how you intend to cook the fish and it will be prepared and cut accordingly. Watching the fish seller prepare the mudfish brought back memories.
When we were still living in the city, we had a daily house boy whose life revolved around his drinking sprees. One time, I sent him to the market to buy a mudfish. He came back, handed me a plastic bag with a mudfish inside and was gone. I dumped the fish into the kitchen sink and, what the hell, it started thrashing wildly. Apparently, the house boy was in such a hurry to be with his drinking buddies that he came back without having the fish prepared. I panicked and started screaming. At the time, we were having the house renovated and one of the workers came in, checked the situation, came back with a hammer and hit the fish right on the head.
Okay, I could deal with a dead fish, I thought. I managed to scale it. Removing the gills and guts was a nightmare. With very fresh fish, the gills and guts are tightly attached (tip: if you buy a whole fish and the gills and guts come off easily, the fish isn’t fresh) to it. After I managed to remove the gills and guts, I started cutting the fish into portions. I had a head, two middle sections and a tail… And the tail started to trash by itself.
So, at the market the other day, of course I had the fish seller do the scaling and gutting for me.
How does a real pro scale and gut a newly-killed mudfish?
First, the fish is hit on the head with a large mallet. A wooden stick is inserted through the mouth to keep the fish rigid. Like I said, a dead fish still manages to thrash around.
Holding the exposed end of the stick with one hand, the scales are scraped off with a fish scaler (the tool looks like a oversized steel brush) on the other hand.
The stick is removed, the head of the fish is pulled back to expose the gills, the gills are cut off and the entrails are pulled out.
It looks easy watching the fish seller do it. It probably is for someone who has had the experience to do it a hundred times a day. But I’ve experienced doing it once and, really, it’s smarter to have a pro do the job.
How did I cook the fish? Pesang dalag.