Sinanglay na Tilapia is a classic Filipino dish which is stuffed fish wrapped in leafy vegetables, and cooked in coconut milk, often with a kick of spicy flavors. This is actually ginataang isda, or fish cooked in coconut. The Tagalog word ‘ginataang’ comes from ‘gata’ which is coconut milk.
This dish has origins from the Bicol region in the Philippines, where coconut is vastly abundant. This is one of the easiest fish entrees to prepare for a family meal.
Take a whole fish like tilapia. After it has been cleaned, gutted and washed, stuff the cavity with a mixture of ingredients like onions, scallions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, and if you like spice, a piece of chili.
Then, wrap the entire fish in large leaves. Some use lemongrass, pandan or pechay (Chinese cabbage). This time, I used what I had in the vegetable bin – Napa cabbage, with its large, vertical leaves encasing the fish. Sauté and simmer the coconut milk and broth, and place the wrapped tilapia in the center of the saucepan. You can also use other types of fish for this recipe, like pompano, red snapper, hasa-hasa (short mackerel), or catfish.
My father grew coconut trees in our backyard, which lined the perimeter of our home in the Philippines. So, with a steady supply of fresh coconut available to us daily, ginataang isda was often cooked by my mom for many, many meals. I don’t have access to fresh coconut in my suburban American kitchen, so I use canned coconut milk, which is just as tasty and superb.
Simmered over low heat, this fish dish is ready in about 15 minutes or so. It is an easy, quick dinner to prepare, but packed with the wholesome, hearty flavors. And it becomes an all-in-one meal with the addition of vegetables. Make sure to have plenty of the rich, milky-white coconut-flavored sauce flowing, enough to pour on the steamed rice served on the side. Watch as the fragrant sauce seeps through the rice grains, and unwrap the silky, large cabbage leaves, while the steam hits your face. It is sheer comfort food.
Sinanglay na Tilapia – Fish Wrapped in Cabbage
- Large saucepan – 12 to 14-inches diameter
- chopping board
- Medium-sized mixing bowl
- butcher's twine
- 1 whole (2 to 2.5 pounds) large tilapia, cleaned, gutted, scales removed
- 1 whole fresh lemon, or about 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 cloves garlic, minced; divided, use 2 for stuffing, 2 for saute
- 1 whole large yellow or white onion, chopped; divided, use 1/2 for stuffing, rest for saute
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger, 1/2-inch length matchsticks; divided, half for stuffing, rest for saute
- 2 whole tomatoes, chopped; divided, use 1 whole for stuffing, rest for saute
- 2 stalks scallions, white parts chopped; divided, use half of portion for stuffing, rest for saute; reserve green parts, chopped, for garnish
- 1 whole finger chili (siling mahaba); optional, omit if spicy flavors are not desired.
- 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 Tablespoon patis (fish sauce)
- 1 can (13.66 fluid ounces) coconut milk
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable broth
- 1 pinch salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 whole finger chili (siling mahaba)
To wrap the fish:
- 4 to 6 whole Napa cabbage leaves
- steamed rice
To prepare fish:
- Make sure the whole fish (with head and tails) is cleaned, gutted of entrails, scales removed, and washed thoroughly through running water. *Tip: I ask the fish monger to clean, gut and remove the scales for me when I'm at the market. It is a free service.
- Score the fish in 2 to 3 diagonal slits on the top outer skin, both sides. Sprinkle lemon juice all over the fish, inside and outside.Rub a teaspoon of salt inside the cavity and on the outer skin of the fish. Set aside.
To stuff the fish:
- In a medium-sized bowl, combine the stuffing ingredients: 2 cloves minced garlic, half of the chopped onion, half of the portion of sliced ginger, half of the amount of tomatoes and scallion whites, and chili if using. Mix well.Stuff the cavity of the fish with this mixture.
To wrap the fish:
- Take the whole Napa cabbage leaves. Wrap them around the fish, securing the stuffing so that it doesn't pop out. Tie the leaves around the fish with about 12 inches of butcher's twine. Set aside.
To saute the fish:
- In a large saucepan, over medium heat, add the oil. Saute the remaining garlic, onions, ginger, tomatoes and scallions. Pour the patis (fish sauce) to the vegetables and cook for 1 to 2 minutes till ingredients are fragrant.Place the wrapped fish in the center of the saucepan.Pour the coconut milk and the broth around the fish. Add the finger chili (siling mahaba).Season with salt and black pepper. Cover and continue cooking for about 15 to 17 minutes till fish is done and cabbage has gotten soft.Serve warm with steamed rice.
- This Sinanglay na Tilapia is best eaten right after it is cooked. Cooked fish doesn't last more than a day. I recommend finishing up the main course at one time. If there are any leftovers at all, it will keep in the refrigerator for only 1 day.
- I used farm-raised tilapia for this recipe. You can substitute the fish with other kinds like pompano, red snapper, hasa-hasa (mackerel), or catfish.
- Other large leaves used to wrap the fish are : lemon grass, pandan, banana leaves, taro, or pechay (Chinese cabbage). I used Napa cabbage leaves. Sometimes, instead of butcher's twine, lemon grass or long strips of scallions are used to tie the leaves to the stuffed Sinanglay na Tilapia.
Notes on Nutrition: The nutrition information provided in the recipe links is an estimate and will vary based on cooking methods and specific brands of ingredients used.
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