Extraordinary measures can come during extraordinary times.
This sums up much of the still-new yet already smoking hot story of a soft-boned smoked milkfish (bangus) processing in Guiwanon Tubigon, Bohol. “It was during the lockdowns that we decided to try smoked fish, to supply for the consumption of an in-law who loves smoke processed food,” shares Loreliza Mula Saul, 45, married with two kids and manager of the XO soft-boned smoked milkfish.
Loreliza said her sister Emilia and her husband, a Briton, had cravings for smoked food. "When supplies ran out in the malls and supermarkets following the lockdowns, they were left with nothing to buy," she says, occasionally adjusting the plastic gloves she wore while arranging the butterfly-cut bangus from the pressure cooker in the house extension which also acts as the smoke house and fish processing area.
They bought the equipment while the family also set up, designed, and put up the processing plant in Panaytayon within their family compound. “I was trained on the technology and attained the necessary skills to run and operate the plant, with a handful of workers. It was at the peak of the lockdowns and we hired some people to get them some work to bring food to their tables too,” Loreliza, or Lailai as she is fondly called, added.
“What started as a modest venture into sardines and shads (galunggung) turned out to be unsustainable because the market price for the fish fluctuates with the seasons. We simply can’t sustain with the operations without the supply,” she said while laying the pressure cooked fish on a stainless grill for the smoke chamber.
Besides, these fish have bones that are hard to soften. To get a sustainable supply of fish, they figured it has to be milkfish as they can be year-round, pressure cooked so that the bones become soft and edible. That time, too, when the lockdowns loosened and Emilia and her husband decided to fly back to England, that a decision to sell the equipment was in the offing.
"I was looking at workers who would be out of job, and the orders that had started to come, so I asked my sister and her husband if we could continue with the operations instead," she shared.
The couple agreed andthe business continued, this time in a new location: her house extension along the national highway in Brgy. Guiwanon, Tubigon. “Due to space limitations and because we are only about two months old, we decided to just keep the staff to a minimum while we develop the market,” says Lailai in her white apron, hair net, and black pants with rubber boots as she moves in and out of the stainless working table in her small kitchen plant.
As the fish are delivered, they are washed, butterfly cut, dipped in brine solution, pressure cooked, and then fed to the smoke chambers. The chamber is fed with smoke from burnt mango leaves, which leaves a hint of homey smokey smell in the fish, after getting exposed in the chamber for some time.
The smoked fish from the chamber are immediately vacuum-packed in 300 grams, the number of pieces depends on the sizes. These are then placed in freezers to keep them fresh during delivery.
When stored right, the smoked bangus can last for three months and when refrigerated, these can last for 18 months, she said, as she places six small-sized bangus inside a cellophane pack for vacuum packing later. “We are now processing small sizes, as we negotiate fish cage owners to sell to us their harvest,” she said, adding that the system works as cage owners are freed from the hassle of shipping the harvest to the province’s markets and wait for the sales.
Although still alien to Boholano tastes, smoked fish is a favorite breakfast fare among Tagalogs. However, the initial prospects in Bohol markets prove to be bright. “We started putting our XO Smoked Bangus by concession in Bohol market and it appears to be good. We are also sending out deliveries to nearby islands and even in Manila where we have resellers helping us,” Lailai said, single-handedly carrying the marketing and plant operations, as her husband who is a seafarer is still out to provide for their kids.
XO smoked bangus is packed as a ready-to-eat fare, although they recommend to steam it or like Filipinos would do, fry it to heat it. "But is its ready to eat from the pack," she stressed.
Already out in the market but still considerably a micro-business, Lailai hopes she could tap government help to expand. (RAHC/PIA7 Bohol)