Stuffed to the Gills

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Whenever my dad gets a little hot under the collar and has to work off some steam, my mother usually hangs a whole Bangus (milkfish) from a meathook in her kitchen. Then, she goes to her mint-condition 1980s-era Sony boombox and blasts “Eye of the Tiger” from its speakers. Then, as if on cue, my dad bounds into the kitchen and proceeds to go to town on the poor hanging Bangus–Rocky Balboa style–working his jab-jab-cross combinations to rightly tenderize the flesh of the fish. After absorbing enough furious blows from my father’s menacing knuckles, the fish meat relents and finally yields as it falls through the fish’s mouth and gills and into a bowl waiting on the floor. Left hanging from the meathook is only a limp, empty sock of fish skin, and on the kitchen floor lay a bowl full of tender fish meat. And thus begins the recipe for Rellenong Bangus–Stuffed Milkfish.

Aside from the preceding paragraph being unnecessarily laden with adjectives, it’s also not entirely true. One, my mom wouldn’t know how to work a boombox; and two, my dad only punches live animals (it’s been a while since I’ve zinged my old man in this space: ZING!). So aside from poking fun at my parents for my own personal pleasure, I did want to paint a picture of how difficult it is to prepare Rellenong Bangus (stuffed milkfish).

All joking aside, Rellenong Bangus is perhaps one of the most time and labor-intensive Filipino recipes to attempt–its preparation involves the tenderizing and removing of the fish flesh through only a small opening in the fish’s skin using only a spoon and a lot of scraping and squeezing. For Stuffed Bangus, the whole idea is to remove the meat from the fish while still keeping its skin intact–this is done by inserting the spoon through the gills of the fish, although my mom sometimes cheats by cutting the fish open, scraping the meat out, and then sewing the skin back together.

After the meat is removed from the fish, it is seasoned and cooked, flaked, picked over for bones, and then mixed with chopped veggies. Meanwhile, the empty fish skin is marinated in a mixture of soy and kalamansi. The fish meat and veggies are then stuffed back into the fish’s body until the deflated balloon of fish skin resembles a whole fish again (It’s kinda like squeezing all the toothpaste out of a tube, and then
stuffing the paste back into the tube again–only much tastier). After the fish is stuffed, the whole shebang is grilled or baked or fried or what have you.

The entire ordeal (and it is an ordeal) of removing and deboning the meat from a whole Bangus is easier said than done–which is why Stuffed Bangus is only made every once in a while for parties and special occasions (or on occasions when my father has to punch something–actually, that’s not true, otherwise we’d have stuffed bangus every day).

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Anyways, because Stuffed Bangus is beyond my skill (and patience) level, there are shortcuts to be had. Which is why I particularly enjoy this recipe from Eating Asia.

Instead of scraping the meat out of the fish, you could just have your fish monger butterfly and debone the Bangus for you (I got this done at my Asian market). Although you can get the main backbone removed, Bangus is still a notoriously bony fish–so be aware that your fish monger will not be able to remove every single bone from the fish.

Then, as Robyn from Eating Asia suggests, just stuff the cavity of the fish with a mixture of chopped tomatoes, onions, and chilies and then grill the fish whole. Although Robyn wrapped her fish in a banana leaf and tin foil before throwing on the grill, I prefer the fish to pick up a bit more char and smoke. So I just tied my fish with some kitchen twine, oiled it, and then put it on a very hot grill (a trick I learned from Todd and Diane).

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Ah, now that’s my kind of Stuffed Bangus: it’s quick, it’s easy, and it leaves my knuckles free of fish scales.

Stuffed and Grilled Bangus

Adapted from this recipe at Eating Asia

Serves 2-4

1 whole Bangus (about 1.5–2 lbs.), cleaned, butterflied, and deboned
Salt
2 kalamansi, (or half of 1 lime)
1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2-inch piece of ginger, minced
1 jalapeno or serrano chili pepper, minced
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
3 Tablespoons kalamansi juice (or lime juice)
Ground black pepper, to taste
Olive oil

Prepare and preheat your grill (I heated my gas grill to medium-high, about 350-400 degrees)

Sprinkle the inside of the fish with salt and the juice of the 2 kalamansi, set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the tomato, onion, garlic, ginger, chili pepper, soy, remaining kalamansi juice, and black pepper.

Spoon as much of the tomato mixture as possible into the cavity of the fish, reserving and setting aside the leftover tomato mixture. Close the fish around the stuffing, and tie the fish closed with kitchen twine. Brush the outside of the fish liberally with olive oil.

Place the fish over direct, medium-high heat and grill for 15-20 minutes (about 7-10 minutes per side). Serve the fish with rice and the reserved tomato mixture, or with fish sauce and more kalamansi.

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  • Ning September 17, 2008, 10:12 pm

    Nowadays, the fish vendors in the Philippines have this instrument that they use to separate the meat from the skin. They insert it through the head, and in a few seconds, the meat (and bones) comes out with the instrument. And the best part? It’s free of charge! :)

    Reply
  • [eatingclub] vancouver || js September 17, 2008, 10:55 pm

    I love rellenong bangus, but it was a special occasion type of food, being so hard to prepare and all. Funny story about your dad: now I’m being gullible here, how big does the fish have to be to be punched like that?
    The bangus looks terrific. Now I only wish you were here to prepare us some. 😉

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  • Katrina September 17, 2008, 11:05 pm

    I suppose it’s common to take food one eats often for granted, especially if one doesn’t cook, but until now, I’d never thought about how labor-intensive rellenong bangus was! I never even thought of it as a special occasion dish, the way I do lechon. There are several Filipino relleno dishes, so I assumed it wasn’t too hard to make. I seem to remember eating this on regular days at my parents’ house. So either our cook knew some secret shortcut that made it easier to make than your mom’s version, or Ning’s comment above is the reason — they get the tedious part done at the market.
    I think I might actually prefer the above easier version, though. Another way to do it that I really love (and I’m sure you will, too) is to stuff it with chopped onions, tomatoes, and kamias! If I recall correctly, the stuffing isn’t marinated with as much (if any) soy sauce, as the kamias already gives it so much flavor. This is terrific with lots of rice, and some red egg, if you have it! :-)

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  • Manggy September 17, 2008, 11:44 pm

    Ah, there’s a classic if I’ve ever seen one! I don’t think anyone (Filipino or otherwise) would fault you for using the cheat-y method… After all, the seamlessness is just for the ooh and aah factor, right?
    I love rellenong bangus, with the peas and carrots (and if I’m lucky, raisins) inside, and with ketchup, yum!

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  • Caroline September 18, 2008, 12:25 am

    Ha! You just described my dad. He makes the Rocky Balboa-style relyeno every year for Christmas. He takes a couple of days off from work and would make up to 30 relyenong bangus every year to serve for noche buena and to give as gifts to family and friends. I’m not quite sure how it got started but he’s stuck with making them now. :)
    My hubby & I offered to help him one year. We spent the whole day picking over fish bones and we reeked of fish for days.
    Your shortcut version looks delicious. My family would cook bangus this way, too. But I haven’t had it lately. This version I don’t have to wait for Christmas to eat. I think I’m gonna make this one for my dad. Thanks for giving me the idea.

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  • Rico at Riza September 18, 2008, 1:16 am

    That sir is one hell of a way to get that fish meat! Good thing it’s not.
    That is one of my favorite Filipino dishes! Sarap!

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  • veron September 18, 2008, 6:07 am

    I miss eating bangus relleno or daing. I love it specially the fat part :).

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  • raissa September 18, 2008, 10:01 am

    Like what Ning mentioned there is now a tool that you can use to get the fish meat out of the bangus without slicing it open. I forgot what its called but my aunt brought it here and gave it to my aunt.
    I love rellenong bangus and love it more with tomatoes and onions marinated in toyo and kalamansi. I also love it when stuffed with meat and eaten with ketchup of course. Its a plus that the best part is the belly – free of bones and all. =)
    oh a side note Dale who was on Top Chef is also discovering kalamansi and trying to infuse it with his cooking like you are. Cool!

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  • Sandy September 18, 2008, 10:21 am

    If I were to meet your parents, I know I wouldn’t be able to stop laughing. I’d be visualizing your Mom and the meathook and your Dad and the fish. And of course, I’ll never hear “Eye of the Tiger” in the same way again.
    This is a great shortcut, and the ingredients make me think fish meat combined with salsa :-)

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  • Jiggy September 18, 2008, 5:00 pm

    If you must eat it with ketchup, you can not just use any ketchup. Gotta use banana ketchup.
    Anyone else notice filipino’s love to use raisins in their dishes?
    Just a few of the dishes off the top of my head – morcon/embutido, menudo, afritada, relleno, igado, macaroni salad(filipino style ofcourse).
    LOL, wouldn’t be surprised if I end up seeing it in filipino style spaghetti.

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  • Maricel September 18, 2008, 5:51 pm

    Just a suggestion, ask your fishmonger to butterfly from the back so that the belly stays whole and all the fatty goodness stays intact and bastes the inside of the fish.

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  • Joelen September 18, 2008, 6:01 pm

    What pinoy/pinay doesn’t like taking a jab at their old school parents?! :) I personally wouldn’t attempt making this because of the labor involved… but I do love the dish when my mom makes hers. Ah… the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen (and the bickering that my parents have about scaling the fish the proper way)! lol

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  • ahnjel September 18, 2008, 9:11 pm

    oh man! i thought you were going to list out the old fashioned way… hahaha but yeah, that what we do too, though we only cut and stuff the belly part… but my grandma makes it for us when there is indeed a special occasion. but my aunt sells them, or used to, by special order…

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  • dp September 19, 2008, 12:07 am

    I’m still trying to imagine removing the meat through the gills. People really know how to do that? I think I like your method much better.
    Your fish looks perfectly grilled and delicious.

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  • bernadette September 19, 2008, 3:04 am

    What I know of the short-cut you just demonstrated, Marvin, is called “inihaw na bangus.” The “rellenong bangus” is really the one punched out, scooped out and filled in with all sorts of things like vienna sausages,ground meat, mashed eggs, raisins and bangus meatall rolled into one. That’s what I know of rellenong bangus. Which is why I cannot boast of saying I make/cook rellenong bangus. It’s just too long to prepare and cook and too fast to consume! :-(

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  • Erin September 19, 2008, 7:34 am

    This looks and sounds really delicious.
    It kills me when you talk about your family. Thanks for the laugh.

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  • Burnt Lumpia September 19, 2008, 4:09 pm

    Ning, that’s probably the best time-saving invention of all! I’ll have to see if that service is offered here. I’d probably even be willing to pay a small fee for that service.
    JS, haha! I guess the size of the bangus would have to be pretty big to be punched like that, or perhaps it could serve as a speed bag rather than a heavy punching bag:)
    I still haven’t found any kamias in my neck of the woods, Katrina. But admittedly, I haven’t looked very hard. I do love the sourness of it, so I will make a note of it to look harder for kamias!
    You’re right, manggy. I see no other reason for the seamlessness other than it’s pretty impressive when presented to the table.
    Hello Caroline. I can’t believe your dad makes 30 bangus every year! That’s crazy! At least he has you to help, but still, that’s a lot of fish. Thanks for visiting!
    Hi Rico. Thanks for stopping by my blog.
    Mmmm. Bangus fat is almost as good as pork fat, veron!
    Now I’m really curious if this instrument is available here in the states, raissa. And did Dale use calamansi on Top Chef? I remember him making Halo-halo, but I don’t remember him using kalamansi.
    That’s actually a good comparison, Sandy. The tomatoes are sorta like a salsa for the fish.
    Hey there, Jiggy. I actually don’t like raisins very much, and I’ve definitely never seen it in igado before. Mmmm, but I do love igado.
    Awesome tip, Maricel! I will definitely ask to butterfly from the back the next time. Thanks!
    I’m glad I’m not the only one, Joelen;)
    Hi ahnjel. No way, I don’t think I will ever try it the old fashioned way myself, unless I can get the fishmonger to take the meat out for me.
    I know, dp, sounds impossible. But unless you slice the fish open, through the gills is the only way!
    Ah, inihaw na bangus. Grilled bangus, right bernadette?
    Thanks for laughing, Erin! I appreciate it.

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  • Cynthia September 19, 2008, 6:24 pm

    Man, I’d give anything to have a taste of this.

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  • raissa September 19, 2008, 8:05 pm

    I will ask around if this tool is available here. If I’m not mistaken it just looks like a long blade.
    oh no Dale didnt use calamansi on the show but I saw him in a show where he was interviewed and he spoke about infusing calamansi in his cooking.

    Reply
  • Jude September 19, 2008, 8:55 pm

    I had no idea there was that much involved work involved in making this.. To think that I always ignored and disliked rellenong bangus when I was younger.

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  • greasemonkey September 20, 2008, 8:01 am

    this is a must have for beach picnics! we usually wrap it in banana leaves before grilling, though. oh, and you can do the same thing for tilapia (but i’d add some ginger since tilapia belly can get nasty if you’re not careful when you gut it)! +1 for the tool (though i haven’t seen it yet, i usually go to shopwise, s&r or unimart) and the banana ketchup for relleno! nyahaha! ufc even! hope you’re all doing well! ingat!

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  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes September 20, 2008, 2:46 pm

    I definitely like the charred version, Marvin.
    Oy, I feel for your parents. haha

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  • joey September 22, 2008, 6:17 am

    A classic! Although truth be told I’m actually not a fan of of the traditional one with the fish meat flaked and restuffed with peas and raisins (sorry Manggy!)…I like this version you’ve made here much better :)

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  • joey September 22, 2008, 6:20 am

    Oh, and I think Eye of the Tiger is an awesome song to cook/bake/prep food to :)

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  • Veronica September 22, 2008, 1:45 pm

    mmm bangus.
    I don’t think i’ve ever had it stuffed. Just fried then served with a soy sauce/vinegar dip.

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  • tokyoastrogirl September 22, 2008, 2:20 pm

    This looks beautiful.

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  • dhanggit September 26, 2008, 12:42 am

    relleyenong bangus is one of my favorite dishes! i must admit its been a decade since i last had them! thanks for bringing this :-) my auntie have a special technique of wrapping them in banana leaves when she cooks them . and i tell you the taste is really different.

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  • Burnt Lumpia September 26, 2008, 12:40 pm

    Thanks Cynthia.
    Thanks Raissa. It’d be very interesting to see what kind of dishes dale does with calamansi.
    Yes, Jude, the work is very involved for this dish. And I think I was the opposite of you when I was younger as this was one of the few Pinoy dishes that I enjoyed.
    Hi greasemonkey! I will definitely have to try the banana leaf version.
    Haha, thanks Lori Lynn. My parents never take me seriously;)
    Hi joey! Yeah, I agree with you, I’d probably pick the raisins out if it were served to me like that. And eye of the tiger is wonderful cooking music;)
    Fried bangus is good eats too, veronica. I’ll have to attempt that one of these days.
    Thanks tokyoastrogirl.
    Hi dhanggit! I can see how the banana leaf would impart a different taste to the bangus, sounds good!

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  • Pat September 26, 2008, 9:07 pm

    I hated eating this fish growing up because of the multiple shards I’d have to catch in my mouth and spit out. Too much effort for what it’s worth! We always had it fried but never stuffed. I’ll have to try sometime … and get the fishmonger to remove all the bones!!

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  • tarcs September 27, 2008, 1:56 pm

    Rellenong bangus was a sunday lunch staple at home. Didn’t really realize the effort that went into it. I’m just getting started on the cooking and blogging thing. Yours (the cooking, blogging and the humor) has become a peg. So, thanks.

    Reply
  • rita September 29, 2008, 5:41 am

    oh, wow! that looks soooo good! back in the DC area – i used to buy fish and/or any seafood all the time. since we’ve lived here in germany – seafood is so friggin’ expensive! ugh.

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  • Burnt Lumpia September 30, 2008, 9:24 am

    Pat, bangus definitely takes a bit of caution because of all the bones, but I think it’s worth it;)
    Thanks very much for the kind words, tarcs. Just keep cooking and blogging and things will only get better for you.
    I have an aunt that lives all the way in Germany too, rita. I can only imagine how expensive certain foods must be.

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  • Beth September 30, 2008, 7:45 pm

    Hmm … now that I think about it, boneless butterflied regular and daing na bangus is sold here where I live. All I need to do is buy one of those and scrape the meat off the skin. Gosh darn it! Why didn’t I think of that sooner! haha. Thanks for the idea!

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  • Burnt Lumpia October 1, 2008, 2:14 pm

    You’re lucky to have the bangus already boned and butterflied, beth! I guess you’d have to sew it back together though.

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  • leah October 8, 2008, 4:26 pm

    i love rellenong bangus. i should have listened to my mom when i was still in manila, she taught me how to clean the fish but since i hate cleaning fish, i ignored everything she taught me about the fishes. stupid of me! now i have to wait until she comes here so she can teach me how to do it, better if she’s gonna cook it for me (yay). good thing i remember how to stuff a bangus and to marinade it to become a daing.

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  • Burnt Lumpia October 10, 2008, 8:50 am

    Hi Leah. When you mother visits, be sure to pay attention this time! :)

    Reply

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