Cover Filipino style salad and bagoong

The pungent condiment is one of the pillars of Filipino cuisine. Here’s what you need to know.

All it takes is a whiff and immediately one recoils in shock or fear. Your body goes on survival mode and your brain tells you that a smell that foul can only come from something that is rancid and, therefore, inedible. “Stay away,” your mind says. However, bagoong is one of those gastronomic oddities that pull you in: once you have a taste, you can never resist it again. Travelling Filipina chef and founder of The Salo Project Yana Gilbuena says, “bagoong is so essential because it provides that umami. It’s very noticeable. It is the X-factor in our food”. High praise, truly, for a humble ingredient that, until recently, was merely infamous globally for its smell.

It is true that one fears what one does not know. So—what is bagoong? Pronounced bah-goh-ONG, it is a condiment made entirely or partially of either fermented fish, krill, or shrimp paste with salt. During the same fermentation process, fish sauce is also produced. Bagoong, though, is not unique to the Philippines. In neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, fermenting seafood is part of the culture and, therefore, so is bagoong.

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Bagoong isda (isda means “fish” in Filipino) is usually prepared by mixing voluminous amounts of fish and salt, the ratio depending on the region and manufacturer. These are mixed uniformly, usually by hand, and kept covered in earthen jars to keep the flies away. Aside from the occasional stirring, these are left to ferment for 30-90 days. The result is a very pungent, pinkish-grey liquid that is used as dipping sauce with a squeeze of calamansi (a local citrus) for grilled seafood, meats, and vegetables.

More popular, due to its versatility and palatability, is the bagoong alamang (fermented krill or shrimp paste). It is prepared almost the same way as bagoong isda, except for the process wherein the shrimp or krill are cleaned thoroughly and then washed in a weak brine solution. The fermentation process leaves you with a greyish product that gets its signature pink or reddish colour through the addition of angkak—food colouring made from rice injected with a species of red mould. Sautéed in aromatics, sometimes with the addition of tomatoes and fatty bits of pork, a good bagoong gisado (gisado is the Spanish word meaning “to stew”) is an acceptable viand with rice, if not a side dish to most Filipino dishes.

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The many different kinds of bagoong is as varied as the hundreds of towns in the Philippines that produce them. In her book “Tikim,” the late food writer and book author Doreen Fernandez chronicled how in Guinhalaran, Negros, bagoong made from tiny fish or krill are mashed in salt right in the boat and left there to ferment. In the Ilocos region where bagoong is a non-negotiable in the vegetable stew pinakbet, they call it bugguong. In the Visayas, their version is called “ginamos,” the good ones displayed like heaping pink boulders in wet markets. If we dare expand the definition of this delicacy, Raymund Aquino Macapagal wrote in his 2017 award-winning essay “Is This The Bagoong of the Mountains” about a condiment called pinayt made from fermented pork in Batad, Ifugao Province.

Now that bagoong has been demystified, all that is left to do is to enjoy it. Bagoong alamang gisado is classically salty and aromatic, and best consumed simply with crisp green mango or jicama. Its flavour profile can be adjusted according to preference— garlicky, sweet, spicy, or all of the above. Simmered for hours, perhaps aided with the savoury richness of pork fat, the caramelized, long-cooked version is a worthy ally to festive dishes such as kare-kare (oxtail and vegetable stew in peanut sauce), and imparts the “X-factor” Gilbuena speaks of in coconut milk-stewed dishes ubiquitous in the Bicol region. Packed with umami and with a distinct quality that simply cannot be replicated, love it or hate it, bagoong is in a league of its own.

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