Photo by Yen de Felipe

From Abundance to Scarcity, the ‘Uga’ Tells Iloilo’s Story

By Lerie Tan

DanggitTabagak. Pinakas. Balingon. Lamayo. People might not know what these dried, salty seafood are called, but for purposes of uniformity, many Ilonggos prefer to call it as such: uga.

Now that we have already established that Ilonggo heritage cuisine is indeed a real thing (well, according to Chef Tibong Jardeleza, that is), we can count uga as one of the Ilonggo food varieties that brings nostalgic smiles to Ilonggos, no matter where they are in the world. It is not uncommon for a tita in the US or a friend in Europe to ask for uga as pasalubong whenever they would have Ilonggo friends visiting over (and woe to the traveler who will be bringing uga on a plane that is not tightly packed with used newspaper).

“Uga”, a Hiligaynon word meaning “dried”, is a catchall word for describing preserved, and often salted, fish. Thanks to its proximity to the Visayan Sea, Iloilo is one of the country’s largest producers of dried fish, with the bulk of it coming from the Northern Iloilo towns of Estancia and Carles. Simply put, a significant volume of wild-caught fish translates to high uga production rates.

Uga in market - Project Iloilo
Photo by Yen De Felipe

The process of drying fish is a method practiced by our fishermen as recent as a few decades ago out of practicality. Imagine this: you are a small-time fish trader with no motorized banca or freezers to transport and preserve your goods, respectively. As a small-time fisherfolk living in a distant island from the town, you cannot afford to deliver your catch to the market without it being spoiled by long hours of travel. Besides, it would be impractical for you to even bring fish to the market because fare and gasoline would cost you more than what you would earn from the day’s catch.  So, you come up with the best safeguard to prevent it from getting spoiling: by drying it.

If you ever wondered why uga gained its reputation as a “poor man’s meal”, then this is how it started. If anything, this low-cost viand speaks to the history of the Ilonggos’ resourcefulness.

Do It Yourself

Much like with the eating of talaba, preparing uga begins with the cleaning of the fish. Not all, however, are prepared the same way. For large fishes like tamudyos, the scales and innards are removed and sliced in half in a butterfly fillet or pinakas. Small fishes, on the other hand, do not need to be sliced or have their scales be removed; this results in the tabagak ( or “awol-awol”, as called in some parts of Iloilo) or dried salted sardines.

Whichever way the fishes are prepared, they should be washed thoroughly with clean freshwater. To extend their shelf life, they are soaked in a brine (freshwater and salt) solution and are then laid out in trays under direct sunlight for drying. This process could take several days depending on the size of the fish and, of course, according to the weather conditions. The dried fish are all then transported in bulk to be sold or traded in the market.


Pinakas in market - Project Iloilo
Photo by Yen De Felipe

The Different Ways of Enjoying Uga

To call uga as a staple in Ilonggo cuisine is an understatement. While they are frequently fried or grilled, uga is also used to flavor some famous Ilonggo dishes.

Fried or grilled tabagak and pinakas is typically paired with tsampurado or chocolate rice porridge. However, you can eat it with something healthier like laswa. Or nibble on it while munching instant noodles on a rainy day. But then again, steamed rice works well, too!

We’ve got more: balingon or dried anchovies are best eaten with boiled eggs that are sliced in half and mixed with chopped tomatoes and onions; pinakas, either fried or grilled, can be used as condiment for laswa or munggo. And you ALWAYS have to make sure you have sinamak on hand when eating uga.

Regardless of how you choose to enjoy it, the fact that there are various ways to enjoy uga demonstrates its adaptable and no-frills nature, just like how it was probably intended by those who came up with the bright idea of drying fishes in the first place.

Uga in market - Project Iloilo
Photo by Yen De Felipe

Poor No More

Popular media might have started the stereotype of depicting the poor as the only ones who can enjoy uga, but the last decade shows that that this silly notion no longer holds water; overfishing and increased demand have made prices skyrocket as of late.  A kilo of dried squid, for example, costs around 900 pesos per kilo, whereas a kilo of danggit costs around 750 pesos per kilo. We now export them to other countries because of the Filipino expatriate and migrant worker communities who pine for the taste of uga and other Iloilo-specific cuisine.

As to what poor people eat for real these days? It’s loads and loads of rice, probably topped with instant noodles or de lata, whichever is cheaper. Or it’s something even worse.

Drying fish is no longer just for preservation. It spawned a profitable market that sells products that are even more expensive than what fresh fish sells for. In addition, advancements in drying processes even led to the creation of different flavors of dried fish like sweet and spicy dilis, fish tocino, and even tocino bones.

The uga, ultimately, is proof of Iloilo’s natural abundance. But with countless developments affecting several natural habitats in our province, it might only take a few years before fish becomes too expensive for common Ilonggos like us to afford. It falls to us to not just preserve the age-old process of drying, but to encourage growers to implement more sustainable means of production so generations of Ilonggos after us can keep enjoying uga as we did.

Lerie Tan spent the last three years studying oysters. Today, she manages Handum Iloilo, a bespoke woodcrafting company, while seeking out new hobbies.