Special relyenong bangus (stuffed milkfish)

When we went to the Taytay public market on Sunday afternoon, I was hoping to buy at least five varieties of fish. For some reason, most of the fish stalls were closed. Were we too early? But we’ve gone there before at around 3.00 p.m. and there was always plenty to choose from. Anyway, the choices last Sunday were limited to tilapia (St. Peter’s fish), bangus (milkfish), some small fish that didn’t look fresh and some very expensive prawns. I went for the bangus and tilapia.

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What my husband wanted was to have the whole bangus deboned completely so that we could marinate it at home for daing. But the only fish stalls open at the time did not render that service. I suggested having the bangus deboned for relyeno instead. When I chose the biggest bangus (1.5 kilograms), the fish monger looked at me doubtfully and asked if it would fit in my frying pan. I said no problem. I didn’t bother explaining that I had no intention of frying the thing. Relyenong bangus is traditionally fried after stuffing but I hate frying because I don’t like cleaning up oil spatters. I planned to grill the fish in the convection oven. No unnecessary spatters, no unnecessary fat.

So the fish monger started deboning the bangus. How did she do it? Let me describe the process.

First, the fish is scaled, gutted and the intestines pulled out. Through the cavity opening, a long slender spatula is inserted between the meat and the skin. The spatula is pushed, pulled and moved around to separate the skin from the meat. Then, the spine is snapped near the tail. Pressure is exerted where the spine had been snapped to push the meat until it comes out whole between the head and the body of the fish.

The not too experienced fish mongers will split the bangus open and scrape the meat off the skin. That will require you to sew up the skin before stuffing. Too much work. Besides, the visible strings don’t look attractive at all.

Back home, I steamed the meat and marinated the skin in a mixture of lemon juice and light soy sauce (below, left). Then, I flaked the cooled meat and mixed it with stuffed vegetables and beaten eggs (below, middle). Finally, using a spoon, I stuffed the skin with the fish and vegetables mixture.

casaveneracion.com marinating the skin of the bangus (milkfish)casaveneracion.com flaked steamed meat of the bangus (milkfish)casaveneracion.com the stuffed relyenong bangus before grilling

But that’s not the reason I’m calling this dish my “special relyenong bangus“. The surprise is inside the cooked relyeno. Click on the link to page 3 and see the photo of the cooked dish to see why all the work I did in making this dish (when I could have bought ready make relyenong bangus in the supermarket) was really worth it.

A 1.5 kilogram bangus is big enough to hold whole hard boiled eggs inside. I inserted two through the neck opening while stuffing it. I debated over adding a third, decided against it, but later on realized that three would have been better then two. See, after cutting the cooked relyeno, there were slices that did not have any hardboiled eggs at all. Oh, well, next time…

Next time…?!? Will I cook relyenong bangus again considering how tired I was by the time I finished washing all the cooking and mixing utensils I used?

Relyenong bangus is considered a party dish of sorts–a special dish. Not because any of the ingredients are prohibitively expensive but because of the amount of work involved in cooking it. Bangus is a very bony fish. And some of those bones are very small and fine. That’s why it cannot be filleted like other fish by just cutting out the spine and pulling off the visible bones. A pair of tweezers (as in the ones used for plucking stray eyebrow hairs) is used to debone a bangus. And the process takes patience and a lot of caution to make sure that the bangus does not get soggy before it finally reaches the dining table. Hence, to properly flake the meat of the fish, one has to pick out all those bones. A lot of work, really…

Then, there’s the fact that the actual cooking involves several processes–steaming, marinating, flaking, chopping the vegetables, stuffing and, finally, frying or, in my case, grilling.

So, what was the special occasion that drove me to cook relyenong bangus? Nothing, really… just that the thought of stuffing in those whole eggs was so irresistible. I wanted to know if it could actually be done. Now I know it can be. :)

Ingredients :

1 whole bangus (1.5 kg. or more)
1 large carrot
3 shallots
1/2 c. of sweet pickle relish
salt and pepper
2 eggs, beaten
2-3 eggs, hard boiled
juice of 1/2 lemon or 6 kalamansi
1/4 c. light soy sauce or 1/8 c. dark soy sauce
vegetable oil

Cooking procedure :

I am assuming here that the bangus had been properly deboned, as earlier described, for cooking relyeno.

Place the fish skin (with the head instact) in a large shallow bowl and pour over the lemon or kalamansi juice and soy sauce. Work the marinade into the skin. Cover and place in the fridge.

Steam the bangus meat over simmering water for 30 minutes. Cool. Pull out the bones while flaking the meat. Place the bone-free meat in a bowl.

Finely chop the carrot and shallots and add to the flaked fish meat. Add the sweet pickle relish, about a teaspoonful of salt and half a teaspoonful of ground black pepper. Pour in the beaten eggs and mix until well blended.

Using a spoon, stuff the bangus skin with the mixture. When about a fourth of the mixture has been stuffed in, gently push a hard boiled egg into the fish cavity. Add more fish-vegetable mixture then push in the second egg. Repeat if adding a third egg. Just remember to end the stuffing with the fish-vegetables mixture. And firmly pack in the stuffing.

Brush a baking tray with vegetable oil (I covered the baking tray with aluminum foil to ensure less mess). Brush the bangus skin all over with vegetable oil. Grill in a moderately hot oven (180oC) for 20 minutes or until the top is browned. You can flip the fish to brown the other side but I didn’t do that anymore (my kids were hungry).

Cool the grilled relyenong bangus for about 10 minutes before slicing. Serve with catsup and hot rice.