By Rebecca S. Torres
This is one of three articles that placed second in the Doreen Gamboa Fernandez Food Writing Awards 2017.
NANAY LEONOR hails from the town of Sta. Lucia in Ilocos Sur and she worked as a seafood processor at a salmon cannery in Alaska for over 15 years together with other Ilokano kababayans, people hailing from the same Philippine province. Being an Ilokano, she is hardworking, thrifty, and determined.
Alaska is the largest state in the United States with an extensive span of maritime border and coastline. Those bodies of water are the rich source of different salmon varieties that are among Alaska’s main seafood exports as well as cod, pollock, and crab.
Over a decade ago, our friend Rey with his wife Emma introduced his mother Leonor to us when she came home to the Philippines for a visit. Nanay means mother in the Philippine National Language and it is often used as an honorific and term of endearment. Nanay Leonor, upon learning that I too am an Ilokano, proudly gave us a bottle of bagoong that she had personally fermented.
The bagoong (fermented fish paste) looked different from what we were used to. It was peach in color with a streak of light purple. It had a sweet pungent smell unlike common bagoong. To our surprise, her bagoong was made from fresh Alaskan salmon. Indeed, you could catch whiff of salmon aroma. Because we relished her bagoong so rich in flavor and smell, it was sparingly used as a special table condiment and never for cooking.
I found out recently that Nanay Leonor had returned to the Philippines about 10 years ago to spend quality time with her children and family. It was a good opportunity for us to meet again so I could learn more about salmon bagoong. She had worked in Alaska during summer and winter months, three months per season or a total of six months in a year. As a seafood processor, an employee was assigned tasks that could include sorting, cutting, cleaning, and grading different kinds of salmon; packing salmon roe; cleaning cans and filling them up. Her task was packing salmon roe in tins.
Depending on the kind of salmon, salmon bagoong would have slightly different tastes. Nanay Leonor said that she ferments three types of salmon meat. Sockeye has a rich, deep reddish color and high oil content. Silver coho meat is more orange than red and has a mild flavor. Humpy is pale pink in color, light in texture, and low in fat content.
Through a mechanized cannery process on an assembly line, salmon belly is extracted from a whole fish. Head and tail are also removed, and the fish is stripped of its skin, fishbone, and intestines. The undesired fish parts are discarded.
Hardworking Ilokano seafood processors save the fishbone (called siit in their language) of red, silver, and pink salmons. They scrape off all remaining meat and mash it with salmon gut. Then rock salt is added to the mixture in a combination of one part rock salt and five parts mashed salmon meat and gut. Nanay Leonor advises that the salmon gut is a valuable ingredient. It makes bagoong more liquid and softer in texture than if pure salmon fish meat were fermented. The salmon mixture is then placed in a plastic pail, covered, and stored for one month or more to ferment. If fish sauce (patis) is desired as a by-product, fermentation should be lengthened. Patis is an orange liquid floating atop salmon bagoong.
Salmon bagoong can be used as sawsawan (dipping sauce) or table seasoning for slices of singkamas (turnip) and unripe mango. It is also a flavor enhancer for simple home-cooked dishes like picadillo (ground beef sautéed with potatoes and carrots or misua noodles) and bloodless batchoy (pork liver, kidney, heart, spleen, and tenderloin sautéed with kutchay [garlic chives] leaves) enjoyed at breakfast.
Salmon bagoong is a testament to the inspirational traits of Ilokanos who find ingredients in foreign lands to assure their favorite seasoning is on hand always.