Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's Skate Time; Not the Kind that You Put on Your Feet

If you have lived in the coastal towns of Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan, chances are you've tasted young skates (pagi) cooked in the style that's indigenous to the region. Well, I have, and my taste for pinais na pagi had not diminished even after I moved to America more than twenty years ago. It would be many years, however, before I would discover that skates were available in some Asian markets in Los Angeles. A few years ago, when we began shopping the Korean-owned supermarkets in the mid-Wilshire district, along north Western Avenue in Los Angeles, and the Korean supermarket in my city of Glendale, I found out to my delight that they do sell dressed, fresh-frozen skates. The prices are not cheap. But they come in the right size, which I was familiar with when my mother used to cook them in her hometown of Samal, in the Bataan peninsula. My great aunt, who used to have a stall in the public market of Samal, taught my mother how to cook pinais na pagi. She also taught her to pick the pagi that were not so large because they taste less wild as the larger ones. You could buy a whole pagi, not larger than the diameter of a big pan (around 20-inch wide, wingtip to wingtip). Fish vendors who also sold large skates cut them down to smaller pieces, suitable for making into sinigang na pagi.

I preferred the smaller ones. You can only achieve a genuine pinais na pagi if you can find the key ingredients that go with the recipe: alagaw or alagao leaves, which was readily available for plucking from a neighbor's tree in Samal. Even when I got married and settled in Pasay City, where my wife's family owned a house, we had a mature alagaw tree in the yard. But skates were not available in Pasay markets. So even though we had the alagaw tree, I coudn't cook pinais na pagi. Not a big problem since I was the only member of my extended family who had the intestinal fortitude and the experience to eat pagi.

On Monday, I pleaded with my wife for us to shop California Market at the corner of Western Avenue and 6th Street in Los Angeles. I didn't cook dinner that evening, and it was a good time to shop for some easy-to-prepare dinner fare. California Market has one of the largest selections of ready-to-grill Korean-style barbecue beef, pork and chicken, kimchee pickles, and a wide variety of Asian produce. I sauntered over to the seafood section, and I found what I was secretly craving for: skate. They were selling at $3.99 a pound. I picked a half of a skate (about a pound), already dressed and the slimy skin taken off. What I miss, though, is the liver, which is traditionally cooked with the pinais and smashed and mixed with vinegar and a little salt and served as a dipping sauce. Skate is obviously big with Korean-Americans here in Southern California because I couldn't find skate in other ethnic markets in our neck of the woods.

I couldn't wait another day to cook my pinais at home, and also I did not want to freeze the skate. So I proceeded to make the pinais na pagi, minus the alagaw leaves since I have yet to find a market source or an actual alagaw tree in Los Angeles. But some of you may know of the existence of one and could point me to it. The following is the procedure for preparing pinais na pagi.

Since, the skate is already dressed and cut into the right size, I just dust it with a bit of salt and I proceed to slice one medium-size tomato, one medium-size onion, a 1-inch piece of ginger, sliced into strips, and 2 stalks of spring onion or leeks ( in lieu of alagaw leaves), cut into thin strips cross-wise; 1/4 cup of Japanese rice vinegar (or palm vinegar); 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper, and one (1) cup of water.


Saute ginger, onions and tomatoes, add the skate and let simmer for about three minutes, long enough for the skate to absorb the flavors of the ginger, onions and tomato. Add the water and the vinegar. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low and let simmer for about seven minutes. That should be enough time to cook the skate. Over-cooking is bad for its tender and gelatinous meat and bones. Season with salt or fish sauce (patis) and ground black pepper; garnish with the spring onions. I kicked it up a notch by drizzling a few drops of sesame oil and Japanese soy sauce to give it an Asian touch. But these last ingredients are optional and not part of the original pinais na pagi of my youth.

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