Have you ever noticed? There are a lot of fish in the Gospels.
I mean a lot.
There are the obvious scenes involving these creatures of the sea. The majority of the disciples whom Jesus calls are fishermen. Simon (also known as Peter) and his brother Andrew are the first ones to meet and be called by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – as they’re casting their fishing nets into the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-18). He promises to give them a new twist to their profession, which will include even more fish in their lives. They will become fishers of men. Later on, James and John, two fishermen brothers, are also by the shore mending their nets with their father (Mark 1:20) when Jesus walks by and invites them with him.
This is just the beginning. There are, also famously, the miracles of the multiplication of the bread and fishes, which occur in all four Gospel accounts. In Mark’s account, the shortest evangelical narrative of Jesus’ life, this miracle is repeated twice. First, Christ feeds 5000 hungry villagers with five loaves of bread and two small fish, with twelve baskets left over. The second time, 4000 are able to eat from seven loaves and a “few” fish (Mark 8:7), with seven baskets left over. And these numbers are “besides the women and children”! Imagine bottomless baskets of fish for everyone.
In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus raised the daughter of a synagogue official from her “sleep” of death (5:35-43), he immediately ordered that she be given food: by most accounts, this would have been bread, or fish.
This isn’t over yet. There’s the wedding at Cana, at the beginning of John’s Gospel. This first recorded miracle of Jesus was a giant festive occasion, not just an hour ceremony and a reception that follows as we know weddings today, but a whole week-long party. Think My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This would have involved the whole town and everyone in it: a big deal. The miracle itself may have been water into wine, but think of the food! There would surely have been lots, and lots, of fish. What’s more, the transformation into wine occurs at the end of the entire wedding celebration: the guests have already eaten, and eaten, and eaten: a lot.
In the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples who are “startled and terrified.” They see him, but clearly they cannot wrap their minds around what is happening. Jesus invites them to touch him and see, to place their hands on him to verify that he’s real. They’re so shocked, he finally takes a piece of … what’s that, you say? Baked fish. He eats it in front of them, to prove that he is in fact not a phantasmagorical nightmare but the very Jesus they knew and followed and in whom they professed their faith. It’s fish that seals the deal.
Wait, there’s more! In the last chapter of the Gospel of John, after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus appears to his seven of his disciples on the lakeshore as they are coming in from a fruitless all-night fishing expedition. They are empty-handed, empty-netted, and most likely empty-spirited. They are surely tired, emotional, and still trying to adjust to their old life as fishermen once more, after Jesus’ Passion and death. This symbolism of the empty nets surely is not unintentional by the author. What is the life of these men now without Jesus? It’s empty, empty, empty.
And then their friend, their leader, their hope, is right there standing on the beach in the early morning sunlight. He tells them to cast the nets into the sea once more. “Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something” (John 21:6). Try again.
And then what happens? They were not able to pull in the nets because of the number of fish. Specifically, there are 153 “large fish” these men haul ashore, so many they fear the nets tearing. This doesn’t happen, luckily, and Jesus says to them, “Come and eat.” There’s already fresh fish roasting on the charcoal; Jesus had been waiting for them as they hauled in the nets.
“Come and eat.” Just imagine how much those men must have enjoyed that sunrise and breakfast together with their resurrected friend. Just think about all that work of hauling in those nets, of cleaning the boat, of gathering and preparing that quantity of fish, and then enjoying that meal!
This story of Jesus’ invitation to come and eat at the shore has special significance for me, after a recent weekend on Ticao Island, off the southeast corner of Luzon Island in the Philippines. Actually, this story came alive for me in a way that I never would have expected.
And it’s all because of the fish.
Ticao Island is almost entirely devoted to fish. The population is 90% fishermen, and 10% rice farmers.
The villagers’ lives revolve around fish and rice. There is fish everywhere. You don’t just smell it from miles away; you can almost taste it in the air, feel it across your skin as you approach the ferry to Ticao. There are fish on the street, fish on the steps, fish in the markets, fish on the way to Church. There are fish on ships, in cars, in the few buses you see. There are fish in the tricycles, and in the people’s luggage.
There’s fish cooking on every pot in every house. There are fish waiting to be cooked on the table. There are fish out in the middle of the street, on rooftops, on the beach. There are even fish in the brownies. (Yes, you heard that right! Accidentally, according to one farm owner, whose little daughter thought she was adding nuts into the batter. The nuts turned out to be fried dilis, or anchovies. True story.)
When you approach the ferry from the mainland of Luzon, at the dock in the port town of Bulan, the first thing you’ll notice is the line of tricycles along the pier waiting to load their buckets and baskets of fish into the cargo ships. In one night, over 900 buckets of lawlaw are loaded onto each ship.
There are surely at least 153 types of fish on Ticao Island, if not more. There’s the lawlaw. There’s sapsap. There’s dilis, lapu lapu, and hito. There’s talakitok, tilapia, even more lawlaw, and a lot more dilis.
So how does this fish come prepared?
It comes in all ways: as many fish as are in the sea here, you’ll find that many ways of preparing on Ticao, and that many different recipes. The little dilis are fried, and added to vinegar and chili to marinate. They are also eaten just plain, dried, or as pulutan, an appetizer accompanying a drink.
Slightly larger lawlaw are salted and fried whole, and served with sweet and sour sauce. Much of the fish in the Philippines is served like this: it’s easy, quick, and ultra satisfying, strangely. Personally, I don’t often care for fried fish, but as much as one tends to sweat in the tropics, the high amount of salt is often a refreshing way to replenish.
Squid and fish balls are popular all over the Philippines, but they have an especially dear place in the hearts and palates of Ticao Islanders. If you’re not munching on dilis, you’re probably being offered these doughy snacks in a plastic cup, with a ladleful of the ubiquitous sweet and sour sauce to drench your treat.
There’s paksiw, a Filipino staple, which is typically prepared with bangus, or milkfish. Bangus is the Filipino national fish, but on Ticao generally tilapia or any white fish does just fine. The fish is stewed in a broth of vinegar, garlic, and ginger, and then simmered with tomatoes, finger chilies, onions, and ampalaya or bitter gourd, if desired. Warning: bitter gourd is VERY bitter, so this is definitely an optional addition.
Pinangat is a specialty from the Bicol region, across the strait on the mainland of Luzon. It is quite popular on Ticao and comes in various forms, mainly tilapia pinangat. Hito, or catfish, is an option, as is again any other white fish. The fish is marinated in lemon juice, and then placed between alternating layers of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and ginger. If you would like a foolproof yet fairly simple recipe online, check out Betty Ann Besa Quirino’s pinangat recipe here. Pinangat is, simply put, extraordinary.
At Yuson Hotel and Beach Resort, you can order ginataang tilapia, or coconut curry tilapia. This comes at the hotel served with tomatoes, local Ticao brown rice, and fried banana or bananacue for one of the freshest, most satisfying, and properly filling meals you could ask for.
There’s also sinigang lapu lapu…
And talakitok, boiled whole just like this or in either paksiw or sinigang. This is “bigeye” or “trevally fish,” alternately called jackfish.
And there’s my personal favorite by far, sapsap. This is the preparation of paksiw na sapsap, in my host’s kitchen:
This isn’t just a delicious fish, either; it’s educational. I got such a kick out of this word when I first heard it, I kept saying the name over and over, trying to ascertain it’s equivalent in English. The entire time on Ticao I couldn’t figure out what fish this was, but the kids in the village where I stayed certainly got a kick out of me wandering around repeating “sap sap.” At one point later on, I happened to say, “What’s up” to one of the boys in English. He understood “sap sap,” and fell apart laughing. For the rest of my time on Ticao I was surrounded by young kids darting this way and that around me, grinning and shouting out to me, “Sap sap!” It became our little game, and sap sap became the what’s up fish. So don’t forget to try what’s up, next time you’re in the Philippines.
Of course, there isn’t just fish on Ticao. There’s lobster and crab as well, and even snake, though sadly I was not there long enough to try these dishes. I had my hands, and my belly, full of straight up fish! It was more than enough to feast on all these dishes, and to try sinigang and paksiw in more ways than I ever thought possible.
The words of Jesus on the beach to his disciples were Come, let’s eat! I heard this so often on Ticao Island, I couldn’t even begin to count.
Come, let’s eat!
In Tagalog, this is “Kain tayo!” In the local language on Ticao, Masbateño, you will hear “Magkaon kita” or “karaon kita.” As a matter of fact, however, fish is not the only thing in abundance on Ticao. There are four different languages on Ticao, including sublanguages derived from languages that are already a mix between two others. You will thus find yourself receiving numerous, I daresay endless, invitations to eat, in all languages. You will hear the phrase, in one form or another, in one language or another, as soon as you wake up. You will hear it before you go to bed, surely, because you can’t sleep when you’re hungry. You will hear it as soon as you walk through any door, and also when you pass most doors. You will hear the phrase at a table laden with food, from just about everyone seated there. You will hear it again when you walk out the door. You will hear “kain na tayo,” or “magkaon kita,” even if your mouth is full. You will hear this phrase in one ear as you’re hearing it in the other ear, from someone else.
This phrase is important. Needless to say, I learned it well, and you will, straightaway, if you visit!
I spent a very short time on this magically fishy paradise island, for an environmental training workshop and conference teaching ecobricks and solar lights to the villagers in Batuan. Yet what I experienced is that there is no end of Christ’s abundance or generosity. God gives, and gives, and gives. God gives us spectacularly generous people like those on Ticao Island, who have mastered the art, the life, the way and example of God’s son. He especially gives fish, and more fish, and more fish after that. There is no end.
The story of Jesus’ morning appearance to his despondent disciples is ultimately one of abundance and rejoicing. It is one where sorrow turns to the most ecstatic joy, where emptiness turns to overflowing. It is much like the rest of Jesus’ miracles, both those with fish and those without. Jesus tells us, in simple words but in extraordinary measure, that what He has to offer will never, ever run out.
The story of Ticao Island is much the same. There is abundance and rejoicing, and it’s all the more glorious because it’s all so simple. Life is about sharing fish, sharing meals, sharing with each other. No frills, no complications, nothing big or fancy. A meal straight from the sea, great company, the simplicity and joy of being together, and the promise that grace and abundance will never run out.
Come, let’s eat!
And, oh. The What’s Up Fish, sap sap? It’s butterfish! It lives up to its name, too, with gusto and fervor. A sapsap sinigang is by far the best fish dish you can prepare: creamy, easy, bursting with flavor, and as natural and healthy as you can get.