Cebu City Food Trip: Larang na Tagotongan
Just like an adorable pug, a puffer fish seems menacing at first, but its unique look grows on you the longer you stare at it. The cuteness meter suddenly drops however, when you’ll learn that it is a poisonous fish. It contains tetrodoxin, a lethal neurotoxin that has no known antidote. One puffer fish contains enough of it to kill 30 people.
It is named fugu in Japan and is considered to be a high-priced delicacy. It is said that a chef must have a license to properly prepare the fish to ensure that none of the poison, concentrated in the liver and other internal organs, could spread to its flesh.
A nameless eatery in Pasil in downtown Cebu may not share the same regard for such rigorous measure. How they prepare the fish, locally called as tagotongan, and cook it in a hearty soup as well, could really leave those Japanese chefs scratching their heads.
From the get-go, this eatery looks like most karenderyas in the Philippines, the beloved ones where ambiance and sanitation are not necessary. Four large woks, each sitting on an improvised metal stove were simmering with mystery and anticipation. Beside a Santo Niño altar was a glass enclosure with taxidermized puffer fishes. Two walls painted with every imaginable sea creature added a welcome relief to the packed place.
The crew were busy doing what they have to do on a Sunday morning. A motherly figure was manning the soups. The rest of them are taking turns in taking orders, putting heapings of rice or bugas mais (corn grits) on a tin plate and cleaning up after one satisfied customer after the other.
A few minutes later, our bowl of larang na tagotongan was served on our streetside table. Larang, might I clarify, is different from your typical tinola. Ginger, scallions, tomatoes and other spices are sauteed first. The fish is thrown in next. Water is then added last. These wonderful ingredients are then mixed, flavored and simmered to the desired perfection.
There was actually not much flesh that can be had from the puffer fish. But why should I complain since it came, with its bony head peering out, in a very flavorful stew. Ours that morning had the right mix of sour, salty, spicy and an unmistakable hint of smokiness.
I honestly hesitated to try the liver. I imagined my lifeless fat body lying with a trail of vomit by the sidewalk after taking the otherwise forbidden bite. My best friend would then blurt out in his eulogy something like “Brennan, who was dying to experience something exotic and exciting in his life, died joing just that.”
I gobbled it anyway and waited for my wild imaginations to come true. After what seemed like the longest seconds of my life, it turned out that I was dead wrong this time.
Was I just a lucky bastard that morning? I don’t know.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, yes. It is a flavorful dish and dirt-cheap too. You could throw in an elephant’s ear in the same cauldron and you would still rave about it afterwards.
It is then in situations like this that you just have to blindly trust whatever alchemy the cook was doing behind that sketchy kitchen. Because when you have that kind of mindset, you’ll find any kind of meal, this tagotongan dish included, enjoyable, memorable and utterly