A man walks by and tosses his Crown Cola can into a trash bin. He takes a few steps, then turns back. He reaches down for the can. “Sorry, Honorata, I forgot.” The little lady who’s been catching the perch laughs as he leans down and puts his can into one of the three buckets she has on her cart.
“Nothing wasted, right?”
Honorata Asilo Magsino, known to everyone by her Tagalog name, Aling Atang, has been fishing right on this spot for 13 years. She’s 75, and before 1982, she was in a wheelchair. She couldn’t go anywhere on her own. She was depressed, stuck at home — and home wasn’t even in the Philippines. So one day she got up, hobbled down to the 933 bus, and came to the pier. She hasn’t missed a day since. She leans on the railing all day long, from nine till four, when she catches the bus back home. “This has saved my life,” she says. “I eat fish, good for my arthritis. The fresh air, the company, the excitement catching the fish. And now I am useful; I have something to give my family to eat, too. That’s why I come.”
I ask her what she’s going to do with these fish.
“I will dry them,” she says. “For tuyo.”
Tuyo is a breakfast. “Rice and fish,” she says. “Poor people in the Philippines have rice and fish — three times a day, if they’re lucky. They eat less, but they are healthier than people here. They don’t like sweet things, except for fruit. And making tuyo is very easy.”
Tuyo or Daing
Catch a fish (say, perch or mackerel)
Slit it open (if it’s mackerel, down the backbone)
Clean, sprinkle with salt, pepper, soy, vinegar
Lay out in the sun, leave two to eight hours (depending on the sun’s strength)
Fry in skillet Creates a crispy fried fish that lasts a good, long time
Break up and mix with rice (or scrambled eggs)
Add vinegar sauce (vinegar, chopped onions, and garlic)
We’re further out now, on the “T” section of the pier, the part with the cold metal rails. Rita is standing with her pole against the rails. She has the line in her hand, and as she watches the sky and the waves, her arm is lifting and lowering, up and down, up and down.
She has a can of bait: anchovies. “I bought it,” she says, as though she’s done a terrible thing. “$2.41. Commercial bait, fishing pole — I’m fishing the American way.”
Well, not quite. The lifting and lowering is part of the technique for catching surface fish like Spanish mackerel or anchovies. Like humans or ostriches, the mackerel’s wide-angle eyes are attracted to shiny, moving objects. “Mackerel are top-fish. They’re hunting, they bite. Not like bottom fish, which have lips and suck, looking for dead stuff or leftovers,” says Rita.
Today she’s interested in opal-eye perch and buttermouth, but she’s here seven to eight hours every day. If it looks like a job, she says it’s one she loves. She’s a grandmother (though she looks too young, as Filipinas often do). Today her three grandchildren are with her so her daughter can work. Together they usually catch enough to make a couple of meals. One of her favorites is pinakbet.
Chop up eggplant, bitter melon, squash, okra, oriental beans (string beans)
Add sliced onions and garlic
Toss into skillet with bit of oil, sauté
Slice (any) fish, cook ten minutes
Add bago-ong (fish or shrimp sauce)
Eat with rice
Rita says she didn’t actually start fishing till she came to the States. But she has a fishing background. “We lived over the sea. In a stilt house, a nipa hut. Poor people mostly live on the coast. They can’t afford land, so they live out over the water,” she says. “I never fished. The men did that, from boats, with nets. But we ate fish. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. We had a garden plot on the land behind. We grew vegetables, poultry, kept goats and a cow.
“Sometimes the only thing we bought was rice. Fish was everyday. Meat was for special occasions.”
Not far away a young Filipino boy is hauling on a rope. I look over. He has a four-fluke grappling hook down at water level. He swings it against one of the pier’s pylons. It scrunches into a colony of black mussels and rips off a clump of the smaller, younger ones on top.
“See?” says David. “Free bait. It’s the same for anchovies. Anchovies make great bait or great food. People here taught me what they call ‘The Lucky Joe.’ They set seven to eight tiny hooks on a very fine line, put a small weight at the end, and tie tiny feathers to each hook. No bait. You drop the line in just below the surface, where the anchovies swim, and just keep that line moving up and down. Pretty soon you’ll be catching eight at a time. Catch about 300 and you’ve got a great meal. Just break their heads off…”
“No…” says Rita firmly. “You Americans don’t like fish heads, but that’s the best part of them! My grandmother always told me you get smarter if you eat the head. Because that’s where the brains are. At my home, when the fish came on the table everybody wanted the head.
“Any size fish, it was the tail nobody wanted. You just take the head and suck out the brain. And the eyes! They taste great, and they’re full of protein, too.”
David shakes his head. “Can’t do it,” he says.
“But I can,” says David’s Filipina wife, Laura, who has turned up.
“When David’s away, I ask my girlfriends to come round and bring some fish heads. Especially bottom fish, like croakers, or sand bass, because they have lips! The lips are the nicest part of all. So tasty! Americans miss so much! David, he only eats fillets of fish.”