Milkfish / Bangus
[Bangus (Philippine); Chanos chanos]
This Indo-Pacific warm water fish is very difficult to catch in the wild. They're extremely suspicious, very sensitive to motion, strong and lightning fast - characteristics enabling them to survive since the Cretaceous when dinosaurs still ruled. All commercially available milkfish is farmed.
Milkfish is an important food fish in India, Southeast Asia and and particularly in the Philippines where it is the "National Fish". While they can grow to almost 6 feet and over 30 pounds in the wild, farmed milkfish is generally marketed at 18 inches and smaller. The photo specimen was 17-1/4 inches and 1 pounds 14 ounces. "Baby milkfish" less than 11 inches long are common in fish markets serving a Philippine community.
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Milkfish (Bangus) is a delicious fish. Its nearly white flesh is neither too strong nor too mild, and many Filipinos consider all other fish inferior. There is a thin dark layer just under the skin and a dark strip down the center but the dark parts are still quite mild..
Cooking: Bangus is always cooked skin-on for reasons which are fully explained below. The skin has no shrink during cooking. The flesh cooks firm and and this fish can be cooked by any method, but is not cooked whole (except "baby bangus"), also for reasons explained below. When frying you need a light dusting of rice flour to keep the skin from sticking to the pan and/or turner, peeling off and making a mess.
Bangus is excellent poached in a court bouillon (see Poaching Fish - I use the #3 court bouillon (with variations). Poach skin-on and slip off the skin before serving if you don't want it, but I recommend eating it with the skin for best flavor.
Baby bangus is often deep fried, or cooked in oil "sardine style". They are commonly served with head and tail intact, though the heads can be removed if you desire. They should be quite small or the spines won't cook soft and will be a problem.
A popular cooking method in the Philippines is Daing na Bangus. Here the Bangus is butterflied, cutting from the top, leaving the belly intact. It is deboned (or not) marinated in vinegar and garlic, and fried. Often served for breakfast.
Spines: For people not accustomed to eating Carp, Bangus has a major problem - the flesh is shot through with about 180 thin spines. These are part of the fish's sensory system, allowing it to detect tiny changes in the water column. Fortunately, the spines are in bundles so you don't have to deal with each one individually. Unlike the Bangus' distant relative, the Carp, these spines can be removed before cooking.
You'll find some bangus recipes cook the fish with plenty of vinegar to soften the spines to edibility, but that only works with the "baby bangus" size fish. For larger fish and other recipes the spines need to be removed or dealt with at the table. In the Philippines people at the markets make their living deboning bangus but we don't have that option here - you're on your own. See our instructions for Deboning a Bangus. Philippine markets always carry pre-deboned bangus in the frozen food section if you're not up to doing it yourself.
Given the number of Philippine recipes calling for sections of bangus cut crosswise, Filipinos are clearly accustomed to dealing with spines at the table, just as people worldwide (except in North America) do with carp. I recommend never cutting sections less than about 2 inches long or the spines will get unmanageable. You can debone the sections by feeling the cut surface and pulling the spines but this is very tedious because the spine bundles have been cut into a lot of little spine pieces. I suggest deboning the whole bangus and use slices of fillet if you don't want to deal with spines at the table.
Scales: Bangus is completely covered by small silver scales with good adhesion - thus it takes vigorous scraping to remove them and they'll be flying about. For some recipes that fry the fish crisp on the skin side, the scales are not removed and are eaten with the skin.
Cleaning: Bangus an easy fish to clean, and the gills pull out fairly easily. When all cleaned out, the belly part will have a thin black lining. This is normal. In some cases the fish is split from the top and cleaned, leaving the belly intact.
Filleting: Bangus is an easy fish to fillet, but it's often done a bit differently from other fish. See the early steps in Deboning a Bangus for details. However you do it, you definitely want to cut the ribs from the backbone with kitchen shears, then use your long nose pliers to pull the ribs from the fillet - they pull easily. If using it separately, you can cut the belly from the rest of the fillet before or after deboning. If before, there will be a few short spines to pull from it. The head, bones and fins make a very light fish stock with only a little oil.
Yield: Because of it's small head bangus has a high yield. A 17 inch 1 pound 14 ounce fish yielded skin-on fillets (including the belly fat) of 1 pound 3 oz (63%). With the belly portion cut off for other uses it was still 15-1/8 ounces (50%). You can expect about 3 ounces of belly from each bangus.
Skin: The skin of this fish does not have a strong or "off" flavor and has no shrink with any method of cooking. The skin is not difficult to remove by the regular long knife and cutting board Method - but don't remove it. By time you get all the spines out you need the skin to hold the fillet together. Bangus is almost always cooked skin-on. When frying you need a light dusting of rice flour to keep the skin from sticking to the pan and turner, peeling off and making a mess. This is not needed if the fish is fried scales-on.
Belly Fat There's an unusual thick layer of belly fat on the lower walls of the abdominal cavity. This scrapes off easily, but that wouldn't be done in the Philippines. Bangus belly with this fat is wildly popular there and the bellies are often sold separately from the rest of the bangus (at a higher price) or in combination with the head (used for soup stock). There are many recipes that exploit this cut, particularly for smoked or fried bangus belly, but for normal fish recipes the fat can be scraped off leaving the underlying flesh.
Deboning a Bangus: Complete instructions will be found on this page.