NOTE: THIS STORY WAS FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE BOHOL CHRONICLE’S SUNDAY PRINT EDITION.
Extra ordinary measures can come in extra ordinary times.
This sums up much of the still-infant 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 years old married with two kids and manager of the XO soft-boned smoked milkfish (bangus).
My sister Emilia and her husband, a Briton, have cravings for smoked food, and when the supplies run out in the malls and supermarkets following the lockdowns, were left with nothing to buy, she narrated, 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.
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 in 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 out 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, 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 jobs, 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 and so, the business continued, this time in a new location: in her house extension along the national highway in Barangay Guiwanon, Tubigon.
“Due to space limitations and because we are only about two months old, we decided to just keep the staff to the minimum, while we develop the market,” Lailai, in white apron, hair net and black pants with rubber boots respond 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 the 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 sized small 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 hassles 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, singlehandedly carrying the marketing and plant operations, her husband who is a seafarer, 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, Saul hopes she could tap government help to expand.
Thinking of expansion in the midst of a pandemic, XO should be extraordinarily looking at taking in more, taking care of its workers and filling everyone’s pantry while the lockdown has kept the competition at bay. (rahc/PIA-7/Bohol)