• Bagoong adds flavour and depth to dishes. (Maida Pineda )Source: Maida Pineda
Filipinos were keeping a versatile, umami-packed condiment secret — until now.
Maida Pineda

7 Jun 2021 - 2:34 PM  UPDATED 7 Jun 2021 - 2:34 PM

You've heard of Korean kimchi and Indonesian kecap manis, but you've probably never heard of bagoong. However, every Filipino has a jar of it in their kitchen. This condiment is made of fermented fish, krill or small shrimp and salt. Dishes like kare-kare, an oxtail peanut stew, are always served with bagoong. In my family, seafood such as fried catfish and steamed crabs are usually eaten with a sauce of bagoong and vinegar. When the poor Filipino farmer or fisherman has no viand to pair with their steaming white rice, they eat it with the humble bagoong.

Crisp-fried pork belly with sticky tomato shrimp paste sauce (binagoongang baboy)

Filipinos go gaga for binagoongan. It combines two of their most cherished foods – deep-fried pork and bagoong (shrimp paste). The key to this recipe is the guisado base of garlic, onion and tomato. Don’t rush the process, particularly with the tomato; you want to slowly cook it down for a sticky, almost caramelised, finish.

In the middle of Melbourne's epic long lockdown last year, I found myself craving bagoong. I asked in a Filipino Facebook group where I could source my favourite brand of bagoong without leaving the prescribed 5km radius of my home. Many suggested that I order it online from Filipino groceries in the suburbs. However, two kind women offered to give me a bottle from their pantry. I was touched by the gesture from two strangers knowing the bagoong is a prized staple in their own kitchens.

The two most common types of bagoong are bagoong alamang, made of small shrimp, and bagoong isda, commonly called bagoong balayan, which comes from a seaside town south of Manila and is made of anchovies, sardines or herring.

Bagoong has been a hit with Maida Pineda's friends from an array of cultural heritages.

To make bagoong, fish is washed in saltwater several times, then fermented in traditional clay jars filled with salt for several weeks. In the process, a golden liquid rises to the surface, creating a Filipino condiment called patis or fish sauce. The fermented bagoong is then bottled. Filipinos use bagoong to cook dishes like pinakbet, a dish sauteed with garlic, onions, tomatoes and local vegetables like string beans, eggplant, bitter gourd, squash, okra, as well as pork slivers and shrimp. The bagoong adds flavour and depth to the dish. Typically, Filipinos pair pinakbet with fried fish and rice. Another popular Filipino dish is binagoongan, in which you sauté garlic, onion and brown the pork belly then add bagoong, vinegar, and water. Cook until the pork is tender and serve with steamed rice.

"It is an umami bomb packed with bold flavours."

I recently introduced my Malaysian, Singaporean and Norwegian friends to Filipino food. Of the eight dishes we ordered, the biggest hit was bagoong. Shortly after leaving the restaurant, they purchased their own bottles of bagoong. Chloe, my Malaysian friend, reported that she now adds a spoonful of bagoong to her stir-fries and stews.

Two days ago, I was craving a comforting and easy dish to make. I made ginataang gulay, vegetables cooked in coconut milk. Simply sauté garlic, onions, squash, okra, and eggplant. Add 1-2 tbsp of bagoong alamang (I prefer the Barrio Fiesta Brand original, not the sweet or spicy versions). Then, add coconut milk, allowing it to simmer until vegetables are cooked. Pour all that creamy goodness into a bowl with steaming rice for instant comfort on a cold wet autumn evening.

Bagoong stars in Filipino dish ginataang gulay or vegetables cooked in coconut milk.

There are very few studies on the nutrition of bagoong. However, the book Foods Used by Filipinos In Hawaii found that "1 tablespoon of bagoong after straining or extracting with water furnishes about the same quantity of calcium, about half as much phosphorus, and 13 times as much iron as 3 tablespoons of milk."

I am not promoting bagoong as a superfood. However, I have a hunch this fermented condiment has undiscovered health benefits. The bagoong has always been a survival food and an indispensable topping. It is an umami bomb packed with bold flavours. Fair warning though, just like cheese and other delicious fermented food, bagoong has its own distinct aroma that is acquired.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @themaidastouch, Facebook @maidastouch, Instagram @themaidastouchPhotographs by Maida Pineda.

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