A. Paulita Roa
ONCE upon a time, our rivers particularly the Cagayan de Oro River teemed with a rich variety fishes, crustaceans and shell fish. It is believed that Kagay-anons have long enjoyed the bounty of the rivers like the kasili (ophisternon bengalense), pili (valamugil seheli), dalapakan (rhyacichthys aspro), sangitan (liza vaigiensis), anga (salvelinus anaktuvukensis), bugaong (terapon jarbua), iswil (glossogobius celebius), halu-an (channa striata) and balanak (castraeus goldiei). The prize catch of the river was and will always be the pigok (mesopristes cansellatus) whose present selling price by the kilo is around P700.00.
The Kagay-anons will always tell you that the taste of the pigok is incomparable. Years ago, it was common for most households in the city to maintain a trusted fish vendor as their “suki” who can source out the best and the biggest pigok at reasonable prices. This freshwater fish used to be caught by the hundreds in Cagayan de Oro River from June to December.
Pigok is cooked in many ways like deep frying, tinowa or steamed with black beans. But everyone swears that pigok is best eaten inun-on style or paksiw, for it draws out the delectable flavors of the fish. One old way to cook it is to put the fish inside a clay pot or kolon, cover it with lots of salt and topped with freshly picked young mango leaves. Cook it over slow fire with the lid closed. Some would salt the fish and dry it in the sun or binularan and as always, the taste will never be a disappointment. The locals theorized that the sweet waters of the river have given the pigok its distinctive and delectable flavor.
The roe or “bihod” of the pigok is salted and preserved. It is considered the Kagay-anon’s caviar. It is usually sauteed in olive oil with garlic and very ripe tomatoes or with an added ingredient of boiled and finely chopped “puso sa saging.” It is best eaten with hot steaming rice. One local dish that I think is a very old one and was usually cooked on Good Fridays was boiled young palasan (of the rattan variety) flavored with salted roe of the pigok.
The prize catch of Macajalar Bay is the hipon (ctenogobius criniger) or goby fry. It is usually caught in the month of February onwards by the fishermen of barangays Macabalan, Bonbon and Bayabas. These barangays are located near the mouth of the river. The hipon is only three centimeters long and of two kinds — the black and the white, humpbacked ones.
Hipon is best salted and it was traditionally placed in big tadjaos or stone jars and left to age When the salt turns milky, it is then declared as “ma-os” and is fit to be eaten. The guinamos is usually sauteed in pork lard or with olive oil with lots of garlic and tomatoes. Another way of eating it is to pour water over the guinamos to take away the brine and squeeze “suwa” a locally grown lime over it. Boiled camote, gabi and sab-a bananas are the recommended accompaniments to the guinamos hipon. One nationally renowned food writer described this unique food combination as “mesmerizing.”
The hipon is cooked the same way as the pigok and it does not require any fancy ingredient or sauces. It is the rich and delectable taste of these fishes that made them expensive and highly prized by local gourmets. Decades ago, many made a fortune making guinamos hipon and exporting them to Hawaii. At that time, they can sell as many as 25,000 bottles per season! A friend remembered that way back in the ’50s, he saw a woman standing knee deep in the bay using her skirt to catch hipon!
Now the pigok is hardly seen in Cagayan de Oro River while the hipon is still caught in Macajalar Bay but in smaller quantities. The sellers of the pigok told me that the fish is now caught in the Bubunawan and Tagoloan Rivers. Many say that the City Government should be vigilant in taking steps to clean and protect the river from pollution and it must also extend its environmental clean up and protection to the bay. So hopefully, we can once again have the pigok and the hipon in our waters. And the Kagay-anons can then feast on these jewels of the river and the bay just as our ancestors have done before.