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).
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).
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
1 whole Bangus (about 1.5–2 lbs.), cleaned, butterflied, and deboned
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
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.