For non-Filipinos, tinapa is the generic term for smoked fish. It can be any fish although the most popular (or, perhaps, ubiquitous is the more precise word) is bangus (milkfish).
A plate of tinapang bangus, or smoked milkfish, with rice and eggs, is a beloved breakfast dish. It’s everywhere in the Philippines — on the family dining table, in eateries, fast food joints and, occasionally, in posh restaurants.
Appreciation for tinapang bangus, it seems, transcends economic status. It shouldn’t be surprising, really, because it evokes nostalgia. It’s comfort food for many and a staple for families with tighter food budgets. Tinapang bangus is not so pricey and its strong smoky flavor often means a small piece of fish when paired with plenty of rice ensures a full stomach.
(Daing na bangus, or milkfish marinated in vinegar with salt and plenty of garlic and pepper, is also popular. Just so it’s clear, tinapa and daing are prepared differently. Tinapang bangus is NOT the same as daing na bangus. This post is about tinapang bangus.)
Do you need to cook tinapang bangus before eating it?
In groceries and supermarkets, or in any food store equipped with a cold section, tinapang bangus is sold frozen. In the wet market, it is sold side by side with salted dried fish which, as a common practice, is fried to a crisp to be fully enjoyed. And we get the impression that that, like salted dried fish, tinapang bangus needs to be cooked before it can be eaten.
The truth is, tinapang bangus is fully cooked. It was something I learned when, one afternoon years ago at the Mahogany Market in Tagaytay, there was a hawker offering tinapang bangus in a bilao (a native shallow woven basket) covered with muslin. To entice prospective customers, she was giving free samples consisting of small portions of the fish.
“Hindi pa ‘yan luto (It isn’t cooked),” I said when she tried to offer me some. The truth is, I was making an effort to deflect. We were at Mahogany Market to buy seedlings for fruit bearing trees and bringing home tinapang bangus that would surely smell inside the car was the farthest thing from my mind.
“Luto na po ‘yan, mainit-init pa (It is cooked, and still a little hot),” she said coaxingly.
Curious, I accepted the piece of fish she was offering. Yes, it was still a bit hot. It was also deliciously moist and the smoky flavor was strong. Nothing like the stuff we usually got from the cold section of the grocery. I ended buying a pack of tinapang bangus.
The difference between hot smoking and cold smoking
Later that day, I would learn the difference between hot smoking and cold smoking. Yes, the experience with the tinapang bangus hawker had me researching almost as soon as we got home.
Smoking is not exactly a cooking method but, rather, a process of infusing flavor into food. It isn’t just meat and seafood that are smoked — even cheese can undergo smoking for better flavor.
There’s cold smoking and there’s hot smoking.
Cold smoking (the temperature range is a subject of debate) leaves food still raw. Smoked salmon undergoes cold smoking.
Hot smoking (again, the temperature range is debated by “experts”) cooks the food as it absorbs the smoky flavors.
Tinapang bangus undergoes hot smoking. Ergo, When it comes out of the smoker, it is fully cooked.
Preparing tinapang bangus at home
Next time you buy tinapang bangus, know that it needs very little preparation. If you bought it from the wet market and you’re worried that it has been exposed to contaminants that can give you stomach trouble, simply heat on the grill or an oil-free pan.
If you got your tinapang bangus frozen or chilled, thaw to room temperature and grill of pan fry to heat through.
Serve your tinapang bangus with rice and eggs, and maybe a simple salad, and enjoy. That’s not too much work for such a wonderful meal.