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In the Philippines, ﬁsh fermented with rice is called burong isda, and shrimp fermented with rice is called balao-balao or buro. The Filipino ferments are relatively quick and quite delicious and offer the added comfort for the squeamish of cooking the fermented ﬁsh and rice before eating it. Burong isda is usually made with freshwater ﬁsh; I’ve made it with milkﬁsh, one of the ﬁsh mentioned repeatedly in the literature, and tilapia. Scale, clean, and ﬁllet your ﬁsh, and cut it into strips. Mix the ﬁsh strips with 15 to 20 percent salt, about 5 to 6 tablespoons per pound/500 g; mix thoroughly, so all the surfaces of the ﬁsh are coated with salt. Let this sit for several hours as salt both pulls water out of the ﬁsh and absorbs into it.
Meanwhile, cook rice. I’d recommend starting with about twice as much dry rice as ﬁsh, by weight, although recipes I’ve seen vary quite a lot on proportions of rice. Use any rice you like, and cook as you normally would. After the rice cools to body temperature, mix it well with the salted ﬁsh and its juices, along with chopped garlic and ginger. Some recipes call for adding a small amount (1 to 2 percent) of angkak (red yeast rice), available in many Asian groceries as well as nutritional supplement stores. Pack the rice and ﬁsh mixture into a wide-mouth sealable jar, or a crock, pressing downward to force out air pockets. Press down any ﬁsh exposed at the surface so that it is covered by rice, and leave some space at the top for expansion. If using a jar, seal it; if using a crock, use an interior lid, a plate, or water-ﬁlled plastic bag that will cover almost all if not all of the surface. Also cover the crock with a fabric secured by a string or rubber band to keep ﬂies out. Ferment one to two weeks. To serve, sauté garlic and onion, then add fermented burong isda and a little water and cook until well heated, adding more water as necessary. I’ve really enjoyed burong isda several times since I ﬁrst tried it. It tastes like cheesy ﬁsh risotto. And I brought it to two potlucks where it was enthusiastically received.
Balao-balao is an identical process, only instead of ﬁsh it is made with shrimp (with shells but without heads). Shrimp is salted a little more heavily, at about 20 percent salt, or roughly 6 tablespoons per pound/500 g. It is fermented for not quite as long, 4 to 10 days. As fermentation proceeds and the shrimp and rice become acidic, the crunchy chitins of the shrimp shells soften. Like burong isda, balao-balao is cooked after fermentation. The balao-balao I made developed a very sharp smell as it fermented. It was a July heat wave, so I think it had to do with the temperature rather than some intrinsic quality of the ferment. I also fermented it for nearly 10 days, and perhaps given the temperature four (or even two or three) would have been plenty.
I was not concerned about the safety of the balao-balao, because the smell that it had is an edge that I have ﬂirted with many times. It did, however, give me the idea to add more ingredients when I cooked the balao-balao, to dilute that strong smell (and potentially taste) with veggies abundant in my garden at that moment — tomatoes, okra, squash, and beans — into a stew. The ﬂavor of the balao-balao turned out not to be as strong as the smell, but it was very ripe, in the way that cheeses often are. I loved the balao-balao stew, though I found the shrimp itself (frozen from Asia, I’m sad to report) tough and unappealing.
After I made the balao-balao stew, I stored it in the refrigerator and warmed it up and served it to friends a couple of times; they all seemed to like it. Each time I ate some, I liked it more. As I became more accustomed to the edgy ﬂavor, it became more compelling. When potluck night came, I brought it, recalling how much people seemed to enjoy the burong isda a month earlier. Nobody said a word to me about the smell as the stew heated. After I got my food, I went to eat in another room. I heard several rounds of convulsive group laughter in the next room. I intuitively understood that it had to do with the balao-balao. After acting out his disgust with the smell of it, my friend Jimmy had moved the pot of balao-balao stew outdoors. Some people ate a little bit, in the spirit of challenging themselves; others passed on tasting it or composted what they tried. It surprised me because I was ﬁnding the ﬂavor so compelling. I did notice, after about a week and several reheatings, that the shrimp (so tough earlier) began to literally dematerialize, shells and all, as did the grains of rice. The last of it I brought home and mixed with scrambled eggs and a little ﬂour in a sort of shrimp soufﬂé, which was as delicious to me as the balao-balao was all along.
Online recipes for burong isda and balao-balao vary in many details. Filipino ethnologists R. C. Mabesa and J. S. Babaan observed differences in how rice is cooked (dry versus porridge), whether rice is salted, the type of ﬁsh, whether it is cleaned, how long it is salted prior to mixing with rice, and use of angkak. “It was noted, however, that there was no major difference in the ﬁnal product in terms of overall quality in spite of the variations.” A 1992 paper by Minerva Olympia of the Philippine Institute of Fish Processing Technology makes the point that these methods were developed in homes and improvements were based on the observations of the practitioners. Fermentation processes are normally handed down from generation to generation. There is little interest in knowing the role of microorganisms and the physical and chemical changes that occur in the products. What is recognized are changes in color, odor, and taste that result from modiﬁcations of the process or variations in the ingredients or conditions.
A book can only take you so far. Once you try practices such as these, the experiential learning begins!
More from The Art of Fermentation:
From The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World by Sandor Ellix Katz, © 2012 by Sandor Ellix Katz. Reprinted by arrangement with Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.