And just like that it’s the week before Easter and Lent is almost over. I was planning to cook this classic Filipino dish Pesang Tilapia- Fish Stew in Ginger Broth and Vegetables. But it is a very sumptuous, hearty meal that even after Lent, I know I will keep cooking this soup dish again and again.
My mom cooked pesa often because dad enjoyed fish and seafood nearly every day. For as long as I remember my parents always began their meals with soup. Usually it was an all-in-one soup meal with vegetables and meat or fish. And often, the vegetables that went into the cauldron were produce my dad grew in our farms and backyard.
In the Philippines, when one mentions ‘pesa’ as it refers to a soup like this, we know that what defines the soup flavor is fresh ginger. The broth is often from hugas-bigas or rice wash. I’ve written in past blog posts about how my mom used hugas bigas for soup broth or to add to sautés, sauces and other useful ways in cooking.
But what does ‘pesa’ mean? The word ‘pesa’ was derived from the Chinese Hokkien word pe sa bi, meaning plain boiled fish. The word pesa as it refers to this recipe, is used in the Tagalog, Kapampangan and Ilocano dialects. It is also understood that hugas bigas with ginger and vegetables is the standard for a pesa dish. As mentioned in the Philippine Food, Cooking and Dining Dictionary by Edgie Polistico, “the fish or chicken is sautéed with ginger, garlic, onions until aromatic, then added with hugas bigas and boiled with green papaya slices.”
“Anong tiltilan mo sa pesa?” (What is your side dipping sauce or relish for pesa), asked my Kapampangan friend, Marc Medina when he saw my Instagram photos of this dish. Tiltilan is Kapampangan for a side sauce or side relish. Filipinos like to accompany every dish with a side sauce, usually with a contrasting flavor or texture, to further enhance the main dish. Sometimes, the side sauce is poured on a bed of rice to extend the pleasure of savoring the dish. It was my friend Marc who reminded me that a good side to pesa would be mashed tofu with tomatoes, sprinkled with a salty soy sauce and citrusy calamansi or lemon. I did exactly as my cabalen suggested.
Except for the green papaya slices, I had all the ingredients in my American kitchen needed to make this scrumptious, wholesome soup meal. I added quartered potatoes and increased the amount of bok choy (Chinese cabbage). As the soup simmered and the large, hefty tilapia cooked in the swirling, fragrant ginger broth, the fresh vegetables happily bounced around the stockpot next to the fish. The strong aromas of ginger combined with onions flew upwards from the soup stock when I carefully lifted the warm cover to peek into the pot. The savory flavors, further enhanced with the mashed tofu side reminded me of Lent, days of prayers and family time together to reconnect with old traditions we grew up with.
Pesang Tilapia with Mashed Tofu and Tomatoes
- 1.5 to 2 pounds fresh tilapia whole piece, cleaned, scales removed
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons calamansi or lemon juice for marinade
- 1 teaspoon salt for marinade
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper for marinade
- 4 Tablespoons vegetable oil divided; use 2 Tablespoons to fry tofu, rest for stew
- 1 whole onion chopped
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic peeled, minced
- 1 knob fresh ginger about 1 inch piece, peeled, sliced
- 2 Tablespoons patis (fish sauce)
- 1 to 2 whole large tomatoes sliced
- 2 whole potatoes peeled, quartered
- 6 to 8 cups hugas bigas (rice wash); or water obtained from 2nd to 3rd rice washing
- 1 bundle bok choy coarsely chopped, about 2 cups (pechay)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper powder
- 1/2 block extra firm tofu for side relish
- 2 whole tomatoes for side relish
- 1/8 cup soy sauce for mashed tofu soy sauce
- 1 Tablespoon calamansi (or lemon juice) for mashed tofu
- Wash whole fish thoroughly inside and outside. Score diagonal slits on top of the fish. Sprinkle calamansi (or lemon juice), salt and black pepper powder into the slits. Set aside in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- In a large 6-quart stockpot (or one that fits a whole fish this size), pour the vegetable oil.
- Over medium high heat, saute the onions, garlic and fresh ginger. Stir around the stockpot for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add the patis (fish sauce) and pour the hugas bigas (rice wash) to the mixture.
- Add the whole fish, tomatoes and potatoes to the stockpot. Cover and cook for 20 minutes (for this amount) or till fish is cooked completely.
- Place the leafy green vegetables or bok choy at the end of cooking. Continue cooking for 5 minutes till greens are cooked.
- Season with salt and black pepper. Serve piping-hot with boiled rice and the mashed tofu with tomatoes.
- To make the mashed tofu: Over medium high heat, pan fry in a small non-stick skillet a block of firm tofu with a tablespoon of vegetable oil. Turn over only once so tofu does not break. Cook for 5 to 6 minutes on each side till tofu browns. Remove from heat and place in a medium-sized serving bowl. In the bowl, place the pan-fried tofu then mash it till it has a coarse texture. Add the sliced tomatoes. Pour the soy sauce with calamansi (or lemon) on the mashed tofu. Serve this as a side with the Pesang Tilapia- Fish Stew.
- Cook's comments: Pesa can be cooked with other types of fish like what we call in the Philippines dalag (mudfish), pompano, or even salmon. If preferred use fish fillet cuts.
- Ingredient Notes: To obtain hugas bigas (rice wash), wash the uncooked rice grains before cooking. After the first washing, place the rice grains in a colander and run water over it to save the liquid. This is the rice wash you need.
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Notes on Nutrition: The nutrition information provided is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and specific brands of ingredients used.
Did you like this recipe? I have more classic recipes inspired by my late mother’s cooking in my popular cookbook: My Mother’s Philippine Recipes. If you’re learning how to cook Filipino food or a fan of Philippine cuisine, buy my cookbooks and books on Amazon.com sold worldwide in paperback and Kindle format.