The many ways of enjoying “tawilis”

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By Leo Magno

TAGAYTAY CITY, CAVITE — If there’s one thing we don’t fail to try every time we visit Tagaytay City in the province of Cavite is the “tawilis,” in all its preparations and presentations.

The tawilis is the only freshwater sardine species in the Philippines and can be found nowhere else in the world except Taal Lake, a body of water in the province of Batangas that used to be the caldera of an ancient volcano. A major eruption in the 16th century sealed the lake from the sea, turning its waters non-saline. “Sardinella tawilis” is believed to be one of a few formerly marine species trapped within the lake that have evolved into purely freshwater species. The freshwater environment of the fish makes its body softer and tastier than the normal sardinella fish found in the sea.

Although the lake is in Batangas, here in neighboring Tagaytay City tawilis is one of the most sought-after dishes. The Batangueños and Caviteños have different ways of preparing the endemic fish from Taal Lake. The most common and popular among restaurants in Tagaytay is the crispy tawilis. Eaten from head to tail, it is served fried with bagoong Balayan (anchovy) with unripe mangoes, tomatoes and onions, but some prefer to dip it in vinegar.

Another method is by cooking the fish in vinegar, garlic and salt, also known as “paksiw na tawilis.” It can also be prepared like other fish, namely “tuyo” (sundried) or “tinapa” (smoked, this way it has an earthy and full taste).

Yet another common recipe is the “sinaing na pinais na tawilis” (boiled and wrapped in banana leaves). The tawilis is slow-cooked in an earthen pot until it is tender. The fish is eaten with a side dish of grilled eggplant with tomatoes, onions, vinegar and anchovy.

The fish can also be broiled in coal or coconut husk. This way, it is best served with anchovies with unripe mangoes, tomatoes and onions. Although the fish is not that crispy when broiled, the meat becomes much tastier.

One serving (about 8 pieces of tawilis) of any of the above-mentioned dishes at roadside restaurants in Tagaytay will set you back about P80 (P140 and above in classier restaurants), but you can buy a kilo of tawilis (about 50 pieces) for much less. Hermie the fishmonger at Tagaytay’s Mahogany Market, for example, sells tawilis for P190 a kilo (10 kilometers away in Batangas, however, tawilis sells for only P150, even P50 per kilo depending on the season). Ogie the mendicant tawilis vendor, on the other hand, sells tuyo and tinapang tawilis at P50 for 16 pieces. A substantial savings if you buy the fish fresh or packaged from the market, that is, if you feel like preparing it yourself or taking it home versus eating at a roadside restaurant.

The tasty fish has become popular elsewhere, naturally, and different ways of preparing and shipping it have evolved through the years. For example, Italian restaurant “Amici: Pizza, Pasta, Gelato” which can be found in Quezon City, Makati City and Mandaluyong City, serves tawilis-topped pizza. Called “Sardinella Marinara,” the pizza is served with pickled vegetables, olives and capers.

The tawilis for Amici is supplied by the Balete Family Farm School (BFFS) for girls. The school is located in Balete, Batangas, a town along the shore of Taal Lake where the main livelihood of residents is tawilis fishing. BFFS itself produces bottled “Tawilis in Corn Oil” which comes in regular and hot-and-spicy flavors.

So yes, the tiny tawilis has gone from everyman’s fare in Batangas and Cavite to export-quality bottled delicacy. Quite a big feat for a small fry.

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