Patis – Filipino Fishy Goodness

Lahat ho yata ng pagkain dito may patis, ma’am.” – “I think all the dishes here have fish sauce, ma’am.”

fishy goodness

fishy goodness

This response probably best sums up how ubiquitous patis is to Filipino cooking.  Patis is the Filipino version of fish sauce, and long a staple in the kitchen.  Filipinos have a long love affair with fish related condiments, and given the phyical makeup of the country ( thousands of islands – 7,107 to be exact) that should come as no surprise.

Patis is a by-product of the production of bagoong, a fish paste.  Some experts lump the two together under the category of fish sauce, but I elected to distinguish between them.  Both fish products are key exports for the Philippines (42% of the finished product is exported) mainly to Korea, Canada, the US, and Saudi Arabia.  Why?  Because a significant number of Filipino expats live in these places and they long for the taste of home.

Patis is a very salty sauce, with the salt attributing as much as 25% of the make-up.  Given the concentrated taste, patis, and this is true for other fish sauces, it is rarely used on its own.  It is added while cooking, or as a dipping sauce, where it is diluted with water or lime juice (in the Philippines, it is kalamansi (Filipino limes)).

If you’ve done any amount of Asian cooking you probably noticed that salt is not a frequent ingredient, and the reason is that such as fish and soy sauce, have such a high salt content they provide enough of it themselves.

Bagoong is produced by fermentation. Fermentation refers to the chemical changes caused by the addition of microorganisms. These microorganisms act on starches, proteins, fats, and oils. These materials are broken into simple substances with new and improved tastes and smells.  However, if the process is not properly controlled, putrefaction can cause less than desirable and potentially harmful changes. However, the risk is reduced through refrigeration, freezing, smoking, and canning. Action of microorganisms is determined by several factors:

  1. The selection of microorganism is key, because the resulting enzymes depend on the type and determine the final product.
  2. Microorganisms need the right carbohydrates and inorganic salts like ammonium compounds and phosphates.
  3. Acidity and temperature affect the organisms’ growth; each organism has a preferred level of acidity and temperature. Too low of acidity cause non-desirable organisms to thrive. Too high acidity or temperatures kills off the desired organisms.
  4. Air affects the organisms as well, some need air, others prefer environments without.
  5. During fermentation, no putrefaction or decay can occur due to bacterial action. If the bagoong becomes basic rather than acidic then putrefaction occurs, and no bagoong or patis for  you.
  6. Salt affects the activity of microorganisms and the types of the enzymes present in the fish. Too much salt prevents the action of bacteria and enzymes in any food, and can result in a longer fermentation period, and slows the formation of the desired flavors.
photo from

photo from

According to a study “Effectiveness of Bromelain from Pineapple in Bagoong making” pineapple gave the shortest period of fermentation.  The quality of the bagoong is measured through the color and taste is best in the fish coupled with pineapple bromelain.  These qualities improve as the bagoong is stored for long periods.

To make bagoong requires equal parts fish and salt.  This combination is layered into large clay jars, covered and fermented from 6 months to a year. The fish gradually breaks down and settles to the bottom of the jar (this part becomes the bagoong) and the brown liquid that develops and floats to the top is patis.  Several types of bagoong exist, and the name reflects the type of fish and process used.  For example there is bagoong balayan made from anchovies dissolved into a brown sauce, and a bagoong monamon where the anchovies have been kept whole.  Bagoong macaebe is made from larger oysters and popular in Visayas.  This sauce is not to be confused with bagoong sisi made from small oysters and clams also from Visayas, and don’t get me started on bagoong ipon made from small fried fish.  The sky’s the limit!

Bagoong making is a thriving industry for the towns of Lingayen, Anda, Bani, Infanta, Bolinao and Binmaley. It is a key industry in the Province of Pangasinan.  Bagoong Pangasinan is popular throughout the country.  Patis manufacturers of Greater Manila source their supply from these towns.  Some other interesting facts in the production bagoong include:

Most of the fish supplied to the bagoong industry come from Bicol, Quezon Province, and nearby Lingayen Gulf.  The industry’s biggest weakness is the shrinking fish supply, a condition brought about, among other explanations, by the extensive use of dynamite to collect fish.  This heavy handed approach results in a good haul, but it is not advantageous to the long term outlook of the fish population.

The best bagoong and by default, the best patis, hail from the Province of Pangasinan – specifically the town of Lingayen. The perfect composition of salt and humidity is found in the air.  Many attempts has been made to ferment the fish outside of Pangasinan, but the result is a putrified fish.  Some makers suspect that the salinity of the air around Pangasinan is why fish fermenting is ideal in Lingayen, Pangasinan.


photo from

The diversity of this country requires more than the cursory coverage provided, but suffice it to say that this beautiful and diverse country has much to offer, and I thought a teaser was in order.  The Philippines is the world’s 12th most populous country, with a population of about 90 million people.  Filipinos by choice, or economics, are a migrating people as there are over 11 million overseas Filipinos worldwide, ~ 11% of the population. [source: wikipedia]

First a colony of Spain, and then the United States, the Philippines is one of two predominant Asian Christian countries, the other being East Timor.  Other religions include Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.  Multiple ethnicities, and cultures exist throughout the islands.

Colonial period

In 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived, and claimed the islands for Spain.  Colonization began when Spanish explorer Miguel López de Legazpi, arrived from Mexico in 1565, and formed the first settlements in Cebu. In 1571, they established Manila as the capital of the Spanish East Indies.

Spanish rule brought political unification to an archipelago, and introduced elements of western civilization.   They also introduced new crops and livestock, and trade flourished.  The Spanish military fought against several indigenous revolts and external colonial challenges, specifically from the British, Chinese pirates, Dutch, and Portuguese.  Catholic missionaries converted most of the inhabitants to Christianity.

The Spanish-American War began in Cuba in 1898, and spread to the Philippines after the United States fought the Spanish during the Battle of Manila Bay.  The country declared independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, and the following year, the Primera República Filipina or the First Philippine Republic was established in Malolos, Bulacan.  Spain ceded the islands, together with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States for $20 million dollars during the Treaty of Paris.  However, the Philippines wanted total independence and this led to the Philippine-American War in 1899, and continued until 1913. The Philippines’ became a Commonwealth in 1935, and plans for independence were interrupted by World War II when Japan invaded.  Philippine, and United States troops defeated the Japanese in 1944, and on July 4, 1946, the United States granted Philippine independence.


image from

image from

The Philippines constitutes an archipelago of 7,107 islands with a total land area of approximately 300,000 square kilometers (116,000 square miles). Its neighbors are the island of Borneo to the southwest, and Taiwan due north. The Moluccas, and Sulawesi are located to the south-southwest, and Palau is located to the east of the islands. [All of these islands played significant roles in the spice trade that became charged as the Spanish and Portuguese tried for total domination.]

The Philippines are divided into three island groups: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The port of Manila, on Luzon, is the capital city, and the second largest city after Quezon City.


The Philippines is one of two predominant Roman Catholic countries in Asia, the other being East Timor. It is composed of several diocese, and archdiocese. More than 90% of the population are Christians. About 80% belong to the Roman Catholic Church while the remaining 10% belong to other Christian denominations.

About 5% of the population are Muslim. Most Muslim Filipinos practice Shafi’i, a form of Sunni Islam, while other tribal groups such as the Bajau, practice a form mixed with Animism.


Philippine culture mixes Eastern, and Western culture. The Hispanic influences are from Spain and Mexico, and visible in the traditions, customs, food and architecture.  Spanish settlers introduced Iberian-Mexican customs, traditions, and cuisines.

One of the most visible Hispanic legacies is the prevalence of Spanish surnames, and names among Filipinos. This peculiarity, unique among Asians, results from a colonial decree, the Clavería edict, for the systematic distribution of family names, and implementation of the Spanish naming system on the population. A Spanish name, and surname among the majority of Filipinos does not always denote Spanish ancestry.

The majority of street names, towns, and provinces are in Spanish, with Spanish architecture having significant presence, as evidenced by the country’s churches, government buildings, and universities.  The kalesas, horse-driven carriages, were a mode of transportation during the Spanish period, and still used today.


photo from

photo from Philippines

Philippine cuisine is Malayo-Polynesian in origin with a predominant Hispanic base, and has been influenced by Chinese, American, and other Asian cuisine.  Today, Philippine cuisine continues to evolve in techniques, and styles of cooking dishes, in both traditional Filipino, and modern cuisines.  American chef, Anthony Bourdain has hailed Filipino pork cuisine, and named the country at the top of his “Hierarchy of Pork”.

Philippine cuisine has evolved over several centuries to a cuisine of predominantly Hispanic base, due to the many Latin American and Spanish dishes brought to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period. Its cuisine also reflects  the influenced of Chinese, American, and other Asian cooking.

Filipinos traditionally eat three main meals a day – agahan (breakfast), tanghalían (lunch), and hapúnan (dinner) plus an afternoon snack called meriénda – so some people claim 4+ meals.

Malayo-Polynesians during the pre-Hispanic era in the Philippines prepared food by boiling, steaming, or roasting. This ranged from the usual livestock such as kalabaw (water buffaloes), baka (cows), chickens and pigs to seafood.  Filipinos have been cultivating rice, and corn, since 3200 BC. Trade with other Asian nations introduced a number of staples into Philippine cuisine, most notably toyo (soy sauce) and patis (fish sauce), and the method of stir-frying and making savory soup bases.

The arrival of Spanish settlers brought chili peppers, tomato sauces, corn, potatoes, and the method of sauteeing with garlic and onions crept into Philippine coking.  Although chili peppers are less used in Filipino cooking compared to much of Southeast Asia, chili leaves are frequently used as a cooking green, distinguishing the cooking of their neighbors.  The use of vinegar and spices in foods started as a way to preserve due to lack of refrigeration. Local adaptations of Spanish dishes  became common, such as paella crept into Filipino repertoire with its version arroz valenciana, chorizo into its local version of longanisa (from Spanish longaniza), and escabeche and adobo.

Filipino cuisine is a bold statements of yin and yang – combinations of sweet, sour and salty flavors. Yet most dishes are not heavily spiced.  Philippine cuisine pairs something sweet with something salty, and results in surprisingly pleasing combinations. Examples include: champorado (a sweet cocoa rice porridge) paired with tuyo (salted, sun-dried fish); dinuguan (a savory stew made of pig’s blood and innards), paired with puto (sweet, steamed rice cakes); unripe fruits such as mangoes (which are only slightly sweet but very sour) dipped in salt; the use of cheese (which is salty) in sweetcakes (such as bibingka and puto), as well as an ice cream flavoring.

photo from

photo from

A traditional Filipino breakfast might include pan de sal (bread), kesong puti (white cheese), champorado (chocolate rice porridge), sinangag (fried garlic rice), meat, such as tapa, longanisa, tocino, karne norte (Filipino-style corned beef), or fish such as daing na bangus (salted and dried milkfish); or itlog na pula (salted duck eggs). Coffee is also common, particularly kapeng barako, a variety produced in the mountains of Batangas noted for its strong flavor.

Merienda is the ever important afternoon snack, similar to afternoon tea. If this snack is taken close to dinner, it is called merienda cena, and may be substituted for dinner.  Filipinos have a number of options to take with their traditional kape (coffee): bread (pan de sal, ensaymada (buttery sweet rolls with cheese), and empanadas (savory pastries stuffed with meat)). Cakes made with sticky rice (kakanin) like kutsinta, sapin-sapin, palitaw, biko, suman, bibingka, and pitsi-pitsi are served, or sweets such as hopia (pastries similar to mooncakes filled with sweet bean paste) and bibingka (rich desserts made with sticky rice). Savory dishes might include pancit canton (stir-fried noodles), palabok (rice noodles with a shrimp-based sauce), puto (steamed rice flour cakes), and dinuguan (a spicy stew made with pork blood).

Regional specialties

With over 7,000 islands, including a wide swath of ethnic groups, the results are gloriously diverse.

The rugged Ilocos region boasts a diet heavy in boiled or steamed vegetables and freshwater fish, but they are particularly fond of dishes flavored with bagoong, which they use in place of salt. Ilocanos often season boiled vegetables with bagoong monamon (fermented anchovy paste) to produce pinakbet. Local specialties include the soft white larvae of ants and “Ventolin recall” of tiny live shrimp.

Further south in Mindanao, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi dishes are perfumed with the scents of Southeast Asia: turmeric, coriander, lemon grass, cumin, and chillies — many of these ingredients are not used in much of Filipino cooking (except in the Bicol Region where they like their chillies). Being free from Hispanization, the cuisine of the indigenous Moro and Lumad peoples of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago differs greatly from much of the cooking found throughout the Philippines, having more in common with the rich and spicy Malay cuisines of Malaysia, Brunei and to an extent Sumatra, Indonesia, with well-known dishes from the region being Satti and Ginataang manok (chicken cooked in coconut milk). Since this region is predominantly Muslim, pork is rarely consumed. Popular crops such as cassava root, sweet potatoes (kamote), and yams are grown.


Filipinos like their desserts, and who can blame them?  One famous dessert is bibingka, a hot rice cake optionally topped with a pat of butter, slices of kesong puti (white cheese), itlog na maalat (salted duck eggs), and sometimes grated coconut. There is also glutinous rice sweets called biko made with sugar, butter, and coconut milk, and a brown rice cake called kutsinta. Sapin-sapin are three-layered, tri-colored sweets made with rice flour, purple yam, and coconut milk with its gelatinous appearance.

from the local asian market

from the local asian market

Halo-halo is a cold dessert made with shaved ice, milk and sugar with typical ingredients including coconut, halaya (mashed purple yam), caramel custard, plantains, jackfruit, red beans, tapioca and pinipig.  It just darn good, but it looks like they included everything but the kitchen sink in this dessert.

Street food

Filipinos have their own repertoire of street food. Some of these are skewered on bamboo sticks like a kebab.  One such example is banana-cue which is a plantain skewered on a stick, rolled in brown sugar, and fried. Kamote-cue is a peeled sweet potato skewered on a stick, covered in brown sugar and then fried. Fishballs or squidballs are skewered on bamboo sticks then dipped in a sweet or savory sauce and sold frozen in markets or peddled by street vendors.  Street food is sold in turo-turo (literally “point-point”) stands along the sides of roads, malls, and bus stations. As you might guess, all the hungry diner has to do is point at the food he desires and it gets served up.

Main courses

Several styles of stews are cooked by Filipinos. Some well-known stews are kare-kare and dinuguan. With kare-kare, also known as “peanut stew,” the oxtail or ox tripe is the main ingredient that is stewed with vegetables in a peanut-based preparation. It is typically served with bagoong (fermented shrimp paste). With dinuguan, it is created from pork blood, entrails, and meat and sometimes seasoned with red peppers.  Different vinegar-based stews using milkfish, pork hocks, or even leftover lechon are called paksiw. Although paksiw is made using the same ingredients as adobo, it is prepared differently.  It is not stirred as it simmers, resulting in a different flavor as the vinegar cooks first.

Two popular noodle dishes are pancit and ispageti. Pancit can be described as a dish primarily consisting of noodles, vegetables, and slices of meat or shrimp with variations primarily distinguished by the type of noodles used. Some pancit, such as mami, molo, and la Paz-styled batchoy, are noodle soups while the “dry” varieties. Then there is “Spaghetti” or “ispageti” a modified Spaghetti Bolognese made with banana ketchup instead of tomato sauce, sweetened with sugar and topped with hot dog slices.

A type of seafood salad known asVentolin recall is made up of raw seafood such as fish or shrimp cooked only by steeping in local vinegar, sometimes with coconut milk, onions, spices and other local ingredients.

Filipinos like their meat and dine on tocino, longanisa, and bistek. Tocino is a sweetened cured meat (chicken or pork) marinated and cured for several days before being fried. Longanisa is a sausage typically made from pork, and are often colored red traditionally through the use of the anatto seed.  Bistek, also known as “Filipino Beef Steak,” consists of thinly sliced beef marinated in soy sauce and kalamansi and then fried on a skillet or griddle that is typically served with onions.

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24 comments for “Patis – Filipino Fishy Goodness

  1. June 12, 2009 at 7:08 PM

    Ay nako!!!! Don’t get me started on patis and baboong. I can go through that stuff like there’s no tomorrow. LOL. Especially with pritong tilapia or inihaw ng bangus. It’s a staple in my pantry along with the banana ketchup. Reading this just brought back so many memories of home and I’m craving Filipino food now. Mmmmmm….

    Oh, thanks for linking me on the pandesal, too. =)

  2. June 12, 2009 at 7:22 PM

    Excellent article! I love your new site, looks very professional, nice!

  3. June 12, 2009 at 9:02 PM

    I love the Philippines! The people, the culture, the food, the country, all are so amazing! Thank you very much for sharing!!

  4. June 12, 2009 at 9:40 PM

    I actually tried the chocolate rice porridge at a foodie event in San Francisco last year. As I recall, it had black beans in it, too, and pieces of anchovies. At first, we were all a bit antsy about trying that seemingly unlikely combination of ingredients. But I must admit, it was pretty dang good. It was a medley of sweet, earthy, salty, and savory.

  5. June 12, 2009 at 9:41 PM

    I second Natasha’s comments. Nice new look for the blog. Looks very modern.

  6. June 13, 2009 at 5:18 AM

    What a lovely & ever so long post!!! Well done!! Congrats on your new site too: itb is very easy & very impressive to look at!! what a great change!!

  7. June 13, 2009 at 5:19 AM

    What a lovely & ever so long post! well done! Congrats on your new site too! it is so lovely!
    Very impressive: what a great change!!

  8. June 13, 2009 at 8:01 AM

    I love your new site. Looks Great!

  9. June 14, 2009 at 2:01 PM

    Wow, I go away for a few days and come back to a brand new you! I love it…but I also loved the old you too 🙂

    Love the fish sauce…I am going to try and make a cucumber dish with it that my friends liked…

  10. June 14, 2009 at 6:20 PM

    My mom also has that big bottle of fish sauce in our pantry…we use it in kimchi, too!

  11. June 14, 2009 at 8:04 PM

    Interesting that the dynamite method is still used. There’s so much interesting food from the Philippines. I need to learn more about it!

  12. admin
    June 14, 2009 at 8:39 PM

    B+B – My pleasure, glad you liked the post. I’ve learned so much in putting these posts on fish sauces together.
    5Star – Thanks!
    Kenny – My pleasure!
    Carolyn – I’ve learned to be so much more open minded through my travels, and this sort of dish just proves it. Thanks for the compliment!
    Sophie – some times I just cannot help myself =)
    Erica – thanks so much!
    Chef E – glad you approve! Still a work in progress
    Sophia – I think they’re indispensable
    Lisa – agree!

  13. June 15, 2009 at 3:16 PM

    Well, congratulations on your new home! Your site looks great!

    Thank you for bringing back so many memories of my childhood! My mom is from the PI and all of these dishes, desserts and sauces were standard fare in our kitchen when I was growing up. My mom used to make the best bibingka and halo halo…Actually, you can get halo halo at Mitchells Ice Cream in SF!

    Great post! Very well thought out!

  14. June 15, 2009 at 5:44 PM

    The new site looks so nice, especially how the front page is set up!

    Patis and bagoong are certainly acquired tastes but well worth the effort. I can’t do without my supply!

  15. admin
    June 15, 2009 at 8:21 PM

    Lisa – thanks and I am glad you liked the post, I tried to show restraint but it is such an interesting topic.

    TN – thanks! I learned a lot about Filipino fish sauces and pastes, and had no idea there were so many varieties, but in hindsight, I should have known that to be the case.

  16. June 16, 2009 at 5:47 AM

    Great Post!Thank you so much for all the info. I love to learn about other cultures.

  17. June 16, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    I really know so little about Filipino food as distinct from other Asian cuisines (though, granted, I know more now, having read your article!). Patis and bagoong are things that I have yet to play with 🙂

  18. June 21, 2009 at 5:25 PM

    Very good/informative read! Thanks OC!

  19. June 25, 2009 at 2:10 PM

    There’s that jumping salad again! And what, no balut?! Very interesting about the edam cheese being the star of the table. And I hope they find an alternative way to catch the fish (I’d never heard of dynamite fishing before!)

  20. admin
    June 25, 2009 at 3:42 PM

    Erica – my pleasure

    Daily Spud – I look forward to some incredibly creative potato recipe incorporating the patis and bagoong

    Beancounter – thanks much!

    Phyllis – that jumping salad does jump around =) Retrained myself on the balut. My hubby just got back from Nicaragua and they fish with dynamite there as well. I think its relatively cheap for the amount of the catch you get in return.

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