A Fish Story

The following is loosely based on actual events…


Marvin zips through the automated market doors and makes a beeline toward the back of the store–past the colorful bottles of banana ketchup and fish sauce, and beyond the refrigerated aisles of fermented shrimp paste and calamansi-flavored sodas. He reaches the fish counter in a huff.


What you want?

(perusing the assortment of fresh fish on ice)

Uh, you don’t have any snapper today, huh?

(saying something in Tagalog that Marvin can’t understand)

Blah, blah, blah, isda, blah.


Uh, I don’t speak Tagalog.


You are not Filipino?


I am. I just don’t speak Tagalog.


You look Korean.

(thinking to himself)

If I look Korean, why the hell are you talking to me in Tagalog?

(to the Fishmonger)

I get that all the time, but I’m Filipino.


I see. Well, what are you going to cook? Why do you want snapper?
(sheepishly, again.)

Well, uh, I’m going to make Escabeche.


You know how to make Escabeche? You can’t speak Tagalog, but you can make Escabeche?!! Ha! Tell me how you make it.


Well, I already made the sweet and sour sauce at home, before I came here. I just want to get a whole fish here and have you fry it.

(surprised, maybe even a little impressed)

Ah, you made the sauce already? I see. And I fry? That’s not a bad idea, ha! So you don’t want to fry at home, ha! Wow, that’s good. Well, grouper is best for Escabeche, but we don’t have any of that either.


Is there anything I can use for Escabeche?


How many are you feeding?


Just me and my wife.


Just two?!! Ha! What, your wife can’t cook?

(getting irked, but was taught to respect his elders, dammit)

She cooks. But she’s not Filipino. So I cook the Filipino food.

(still laughing)

She’s not Filipino?! Does she like what you cook? Does she eat Filipino food?

(wondering why older Filipinos always seem to laugh at him)

She loves Filipino food, actually.


That’s good! That’s good! OK, I have this Sea Bass here. It will be good for Escabeche. I’ll clean it and fry it for you, then you take home fast, OK? So the fish will be crisp when you get home. You don’t live far do you?


Nope. Just ten minutes away.



The Old Fishmonger Guy grabs a pristine-looking sea bass from his case, turns around, and slams it on his work counter. He goes to work and cleans the fish. Scales fly every which way, some even landing in his non-hairnet-protected hair. The Old Fishmonger Guy then takes the fish and plunges it into the hot oil of a deep fryer. Above the fryer is a sign that reads “We Fry For Free. (Whole Fish Only)”. Marvin spots the sign and imagines his mom reading the sign aloud. He laps laughs.


So tell me. What did you put in your Escabeche sauce?

(counting on his fingers as he lists his ingredients)

Hmmm. Some vinegar, water, patis, onions, garlic, ginger, red and green bell pepper, and, um, hmmm. I think that’s it.




Oh, yeah! Sugar! Yes, I put some sugar in it too. It’s sweet and sour with the vinegar and sugar.


Yes. That sounds like a pretty good Escabeche sauce.

(thinking to himself)

Acceptance! At last!

(to the Fishmonger)

Oh, thanks.

After a few minutes in the bubbling and spewing hot oil, the fish was removed from the deep fryer, sprinkled with a little salt, then wrapped in a cardboard box and foil. Marvin again thanked The Old Fishmonger and took his parcel to the front of the store and paid for the fish. Marvin then zipped through the automated market doors, got into his car, then dashed home.


Marvin arrives at home, but the smell of the fried fish seemingly precedes him as his wife calls out to him from the living room before even seeing him.

(she’s visibly pregnant, her hands are clasped over her belly as she sits on the couch)

Finally! How was the market?

(already in the kitchen, removing the fish from its package and placing it on a serving platter)

Eh, same as always.

(walking into the kitchen)

Mmmmm. That smells good. I kept the sauce warm on the stove like you asked. I’ve been craving this forever!

(pouring the sweet and sour sauce onto the fish)

You and me both.

Filipino Escabeche (Sweet and Sour Fish)

Serves Two

NOTE: You can deep-fry your own fish at home if you’d like. But as I mentioned above, I’ve found it a lot easier (and neater) to have the fish fried at my local Filipino market. If you don’t have a local Filipino market, most other Asian markets (like 99 Ranch) also fry your fish for free. And I apologize for the corniness above.

1 2lb. whole sea bass, red snapper, or grouper–cleaned, gutted, and deep fried.

2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 red onion, sliced
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and julienned
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 green bell pepper, julienned
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1/2 cup water
1/4 cane vinegar
1 Tablespoon fish sauce
1 Tablespoon brown sugar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 Tablespoon cold water
2 green onions, chopped for garnish

To make the Escabeche sweet and sour sauce, heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat. Add the onions to the hot pan and saute for five minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and bell peppers to the pan, and continue cooking until bell peppers begin to soften, about 3 minutes.

Add the water, vinegar, fish sauce, brown sugar, and black pepper to the pan. Stir to combine, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cover pan, and continue simmering over low heat for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, taste the sauce and adjust sauce to the desired sweet/sourness if needed.

Combine the cornstarch with the Tablespoon of water, then add to the pan. Continue stirring over low heat until sauce thickens. Remove sauce from heat, then pour over whole fried fish on a serving platter. Garnish with green onions. Serve immediately.

  • Manggy July 1, 2009, 1:43 am

    I think you definitely have some East Asian in you, but I don’t think I would have ever mistaken you for Korean, tleast not 100%. I think. Mr. Fishmonger sure is weird. What part of “I am, I just don’t speak Tagalog” doesn’t he get?! (salting the fish *after* frying? Hmm.)
    Anyway, I think it’s the addition of sliced onions that turns sweet and sour into an escabeche, but that’s just off the top of my head :) I could’ve sworn the first pic was a Tilapia. Oh well :) Everything looks good, from the pre-sauced to the sauced version! :)

  • Mila July 1, 2009, 5:47 am

    The recipe looks good, I might have a go at it and see if any fishmonger in my corner of the world is willing to fry it for me :) Otherwise, I might sub shrimp or squid instead.
    Sounds like you’ve made yourself a suki with the fishmonger, he’s likely to remember you from now on!

  • Kimberly July 1, 2009, 8:52 am

    As a non-Tagalog-speaking Filipina American who looks Chinese and has a hapa Japanese partner, I wonder what is easier: getting the fish fried at the Filipino market or doing it myself! Love the story.

  • Princess July 1, 2009, 9:51 am

    Your post makes me hungry I could hear the fish crackling between my teeth. BTW, have you tried adding pineapple chunks to the sauce?

  • Gastronomer July 1, 2009, 10:10 am

    Oh, that was a terrific story! And you and the missus did a damn fine job eating that fish to the core 😉

  • elmomonster July 1, 2009, 1:08 pm

    Great story Marvin. I think I’ll make this next. I haven’t mentioned it, but I’ve been making a whole bunch of Flip dishes lately. Last night: tortang talong. The night before: Ampalaya with pork.

  • Lorena July 1, 2009, 2:59 pm

    I get a lot of that “mistaken identity” business too, especially since I’m half Mexican. And even though I’m vegetarian, the escabeche looks delish! I wonder how it would taste with fried tofu…Hm.
    Oh, and loved the strikethrough on “laps.” Have you seen Jo Koy’s stand-up on Comedy Central? I swear, he’s one of the funniest Pinoys this side of the Pacific!

  • beancounter July 1, 2009, 5:39 pm

    funny story Marvin! I don’t think our fishmongers downunder fry fish for customers (unless you’re buying it with chips)…not even the asian ones…i do wish we have that as the smell of fried fish just lingers…for a long time…

  • Mike July 1, 2009, 7:40 pm

    That was a nice read, thanks.
    There’s nothing better than eating a whole fish. Fillets are great, but learning how to “himay” fish bones is an important skill.

  • bagito July 1, 2009, 9:49 pm

    enjoyed that screenplay, er, story. mmm, i could almost smell that fresh fried fish scent that preceded you! yummy!!!
    wonder what the wife will be craving next… as we pinoys say in tagalog, “abangan ang susunod na kabanata…” (translation: “stay tuned for the next chapter/episode…”)

  • tsugumi July 1, 2009, 10:05 pm

    you have an amusing anecdote. i didn’t grew up here (US) but i get annoyed whenever fellow pinoys asks a lot of questions especially when you don’t want to be disturbed. i know its part our nature/culture to asks a lot of questions but sometimes actually most of the time i just want a tilapia cleaned and fried so i can enjoy my meal devoid of fried fish smell.

  • joey July 2, 2009, 7:33 am

    My fishmonger doesn’t fry! :( That would be so neat…must search for one here…
    That is a lovely looking escabeche!

  • Erin July 2, 2009, 8:40 am

    Lucky! I don’t even have a fishmonger yet, let alone one who will fry fish for me. As a matter of fact, I don’t even have an Asian market yet. Petaluma is sorely lacking. Though I think I may have spotted a Korean market as I was whizzing down 101 yesterday, that’s something. Now if I could only remember where. Great looking escabeche!
    Hope all is well with getting ready for baby!

  • Dee July 2, 2009, 1:03 pm

    Great story, delicious-looking escabeche! Now I’m craving some, and I’m not even pregnant!
    BTW, older Filipinos laugh at everyone, usually inappropriately. Don’t take it personally. I think it’s just their initial reaction – well, that and overexaggerated surprise.
    Hope your wife and baby are doing well!

  • _ts of [eatingclub] vancouver July 2, 2009, 7:11 pm

    My favorite part of the dialogue: “Blah, blah, blah, isda, blah.” Teehee.

  • katalina July 2, 2009, 8:57 pm

    Really loved the story you got there especially the part wherein you wonder why he spoke to you in tagalog but he though you were Korean hahaha!=) You made a “suki” there.
    Makes me wonder how Filipino the Filipino market is at your end?=P
    By the way, if they happen to have some tilapia, go ahead and let them have you fry some to a crisp then pour over the escabeche sauce and revel in all the crunchiness, saltiness and sweet glory of the dish. Sorry it’s nearing lunch time here hehehe!=)

  • RavenousCouple July 2, 2009, 11:54 pm

    Love the intro/story!!! Made us kept on reading to the very end…when are you going to show that fish…it was well worth it..great recipe and photos!

  • foodhoe July 3, 2009, 2:10 pm

    a great tale of exciting adventure, the old man sounds like quite a character. I just came by looking for your ensaimada post which you also announced the bun in the oven. Funny thing, it made me think that the bun must be getting along… Love that fish head shot too

  • Cynthia July 4, 2009, 2:36 am

    I LOVE the corniness! :)

  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes July 4, 2009, 9:26 am

    This is where I come when I need a good laugh!
    Great idea to have them fry the fish, your dish looks fabulous. Of course you nail the post with the fish head at the end!
    Happy Independence Day to you and your family Marvin!

  • Gourmet Mama July 5, 2009, 7:30 pm

    I’ve seen a picture of an Eskabeche dish before. This looks a lot colorful. The one I saw had a lot more sauce and Had more reds and oranges in it.

  • fortuitous faery July 6, 2009, 11:24 am

    i think this experience qualifies as “INTRA-racial prejudice.” 😛

  • Burnt Lumpia July 6, 2009, 2:41 pm

    Hi Manggy. It’s definitely sea bass, the Tilapia he had were larger–unless he mislabeled his fish. Also, salting the fish after frying seemed normal to me, you’re supposed to season fried foods after frying–the hot oil helps salt stick (i.e. french fries).
    Thanks Mila. Shrimp or squid sound awesome as escabeche, I’ve never considered that. And I hope the fish guy does remember me, it’d be cool to have my own suki;)
    Hi Kimberly. Both ways have their pros and cons, but I still like getting it done at the market! And thanks for visiting my blog.
    I haven’t tried pineapple chunks, Princess. But now that you mention it, that seems like it would be a perfect addition to any escabeche.
    Hey there Gastronomer! And yes, we did away with that fish rather quickly;)
    Nice Elmo. I love anything with ampalaya! And very cool that you are cranking out flip dishes!
    Hey Lorena. I’m very glad you lapped at the story. And I’ve heard of Jo Koy, but I’ve never caught his act. I’ll search for him on youtube.
    Hi beancounter. Yeah, frying fish at home can be a stinky situation, but I’d live with the smell if I had no other choice.
    I’m glad you like it, Mike. And yes, nothing compares to whole fried fish.
    Thanks bagito! And thanks for translating too, otherwise I would have had no clue what you were saying;P
    Thanks for visiting my blog tsugumi. I’ve gotten used to all the questions, it’s the way I’ve grown up. But every now and then it can get to me.
    Hey joey! Fish-frying seems so normal at the asian markets here–it should be adopted everywhere else.
    Thanks Erin. All is well so far, but it’s getting down to the nitty-gritty.
    Thanks Dee. I don’t take it personally at all, it’s quite funny to me actually. I was just trying to get my point of view across;)
    Thanks ts! Isda was the only word I picked up on.
    Hi Katalina. Believe me, my Filipino market is very Filipino;) And I’ll give tilapia a try next time too.
    Thanks RavenousCouple!
    Thanks foodhoe! The bun is getting along… only a few more weeks to go.
    I’m glad you aren’t put off by my corniness, Cynthia!
    Thanks very much, LL! I’m always happy to oblige.
    There are many versions of escabeche, Gourmet Mama. This was just my take on it.
    Flip on Flip crime, right fortuitous faery? 😛

  • Fine Life Folk July 6, 2009, 4:40 pm

    Poor fish. Anyway, twas bound to happen. That fishmonger guy is typical of some of fishmongers we have here at Mutya ng Pasig. You’ve got to give it to him for even striking a conversation no matter how indiscreet his questions were (chuckles).

  • ahnjel July 6, 2009, 6:45 pm

    i love escabeche! and its sad that we dont have lapu-lapu available in SoCal, oh how i miss it!
    the butcher at seafood city panorama was like that as well, i got to get extra on my meat when i get him to serve me before. sadly the nearest asian supermarket from where i live is about 20-30 mins and i hate driving freeways… TToTT

  • chris July 6, 2009, 8:14 pm

    Oh man you made me laugh out loud! At least you have a Filipino market. I live in Portland, OR – the closest market is about 25 miles away.

  • BakerTiffany July 12, 2009, 12:49 pm

    OMG that looks delicious. I get something similar whenever I go to China Town but with a twist – I’m half Filipino. This is how it goes:
    Them – *speaking Chinese*
    Me – Uh, I don’t speak Chinese, sorry.
    Them – Oh, why not?
    Me – I’m Filipino.
    Them – Are you sure? You look Chinese. You probably have Chinese in you.
    Me – Nope. Filipino and American.
    Them – You look Chinese.
    Seriously, I spent 5 minutes at a deli trying to convince the Chinese couple that ran it I wasn’t lying to them. They still weren’t convinced.

  • Jude July 12, 2009, 6:32 pm

    Whenever I get the you don’t look Filipino, you look like -insert any other Asian here- from older Filipinos, just say anak ka ng tatay mo.
    Works like a charm every time, but you risk getting a cleaver thrown at you. Sounds like that guy would be pretty good at it too.

  • bernadette July 13, 2009, 2:56 am

    i just love your creativity, Marvin! The way you introduced escabeche is great! I’m a Filipina in the Philippines married to a German and frying fish is something he would prefer done far, far from home ;-).

  • cookienurse July 15, 2009, 6:08 pm

    love the story, made me laugh!! I don’t speak Tagalog either and have to explain myself all the time, too.

  • Burnt Lumpia July 16, 2009, 5:26 pm

    Hi Fine Life Folk. I didn’t mind the fishmonger’s indiscreetness. I’m used to it by now;)
    I’m not even sure I’ve ever had lapu-lapu before ahnjel! I also actually grew up in Panorama, we moved when I was in the 5th grade.
    Thanks chris. I would think Portland would have more Filipinos to warrant a closer market, but I guess not:(
    Hi BakerTiffany! Don’t you just love it when other Asians insist you’ve got something else in you;P
    Jude, the fishmonger did indeed have a mean looking cleaver. I’d need a running start before I gave him any lip.
    Thanks bernadette. I love the smell of frying fish!
    Thanks cookienurse. I’m glad I could make you laugh.

  • jubilant cerise July 18, 2009, 11:55 am

    Hilarious! Most other asian people often mistake me as chinese, japanese or thai but filipinos always recognize me as a sister. :) I also don’t speak tagalog and miss filipino cooking – some dishes I don’t even know the names of, so it’s really great to see your stories here. Thanks for this blog! I’ve been visiting/lurking for a while but have been too shy to comment til now. Will be back for sure – I love making new friends through food! :)

  • greasemonkey July 19, 2009, 7:17 am

    hey there, mr and mrs burnt lumpia! =) glad the pregnancy’s coming along well!
    hehehe… with the number of koreans in the major philippine cities, it probably won’t be long before we’re nicely homogenized (some of the korean women are way hot!).
    anyway, great escabeche! the proof’s in the eating, eh? nice shot of the skelybones at the end!
    “nanay, binaliktad na!” (hahaha, that’s the short version of a joke about a not so affluent family that had a surprise visit from relatives during dinner. they were having dinner and the young daughter asked the mom what they would serve. the mom reassured her that the other side of the fish would be left for them. upon seeing that the guests were already eating their share, the daughter squealed ‘mom, they’ve already turned it over!’ not so funny in real life but as some regional filipino jokes are, there’s a bit of bitterness and a hint of a warning in there, which i think is the real reason they tell the joke in the first place…)..
    sorry about the long post, it’s been a while and i was feeling chatty… ingat

  • caroline August 29, 2009, 3:42 am

    I baked some fillets in the oven and poured the sauce and veggies on it afterwards. It was really good. I’m going to try the fried fish version next time.

  • noemi September 12, 2009, 1:15 pm

    marvin, can i have that head???heheheh
    i always luv eating the head part…escabeche is also my favorite since my husband cooks a “mean” version of it. let’s just call it “bisdak” version since we’re both from the cebu.
    i bet the baby would also luv escabeche..:D

  • Anonymous September 12, 2009, 6:06 pm

    sorry but your escabeche sauce looks too dry. LOL
    the first time I set foot in a store where they friend your fish for you I was amazed. cos we don’t have that here in the phils. I thought the ‘fishmonger’ LOL was kidding when I told him he might as well fry it too as I was making a joke. anyway I learned later that to avail of better tasting cooked fish from the store you need to bet there early of you end up with your fish tasting funny from all the other kinds of fish that have been previously cooked in it.
    have you tried steamed lapu-lapu with heated oil and then soy sauce poured over it??? da best! garnish with thinly cut onion leeks on top and some browned garlic if you’re into that too.

  • Anonymous September 12, 2009, 6:09 pm

    sorry about the typos…LOL
    that’s fried fish (fish can be friendly too!)…also you add the soy sauce when the oil is heated enough to create a sizzling yummy platter of lapulapu! 😉

  • Anonymous September 12, 2009, 6:11 pm

    tip: you can now buy sweet & sour sauce in a bottle (Maggi) or in a powder pack which you dilute with water. the veggies need to be fresh though.

  • Anonymous September 12, 2009, 6:57 pm

    watching Jo Koy’s videos at comedy central…thanks for sharing! LMAO

  • Carol June 21, 2011, 9:19 pm

    LMAO! Love the story. Growing up (Chinese family), the fish eyes were always the first to go but I always tried to get the tail.

  • Chito August 2, 2011, 8:02 am

    I actually make mine with a cornstarch batter to keep it cripy. Adding five-spice powder makes it more Chinese. The old fishmonger is right about grouper (lapu-lapu) being the best fish for this dish. Was he around 57 years old, by chance? Geez, I hope I’m not turning out like him. I’d be bitch-slapping myself if I acted like him.


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