General Santos City, the Philippines
March 29 – 30, 2014
We had to beat the crack of dawn to catch tuna. Anyway Hemingway, my family was never into deep sea fishing. We only wanted to be a welcoming committee to tuna trawlers as they returned to port. Alas, none of us a morning person, we arrived at General Santos City Fish Port Complex at 7 AM, already past the thick of the action.
We could not miss seeing GenSan’s icon other than boxing champ Manny Pacquiao: the yellowfin tuna. To provide sashimi-grade tuna to fish markets around the world, including the famous Tsukiji in Tokyo, the fish port was established in 1999 as the biggest in the country. It would also be the cleanest. After a briefing at the holding area where we geared up in special pants and boots, we waded through an antiseptic solution before entering the port.
The bounty of the warm equatorial waters of Celebes Sea and the Pacific had nurtured GenSan, located at the fortuitous junction of these two bodies of water teeming with marine life, particularly yellowfin and bigeye tuna, which I could not tell apart. Commercial fishing and canneries had sustained its people. Little wonder that Japan, the city’s major export partner, invested to modernize the fish port.
Only a few trawlers were still coming in Sarangani Bay; practically the entire fishing fleet was already berthed at the quay. Workers were unloading the last of the day’s catch, which, on any given day, would be about 300 metric tons of fish. They carried 50-kilo tuna, as big as a sack of rice, wrapped in plastic (perhaps to minimize body contact) on their shoulders as they balanced deftly on wooden planks from boat to dock. The fish would then be hooked on a scale for the weigh-in.
We toured the facility for about 40 minutes to get a glimpse of tuna processing – from gutting to chilling – until the fish was ready for distribution. At that late hour, workers were not too busy to smile at the camera and answer a question or two.
The proof of the pudding was in the eating. We had our fill of tuna steak and tuna belly at Big Ben Steaks & Grills, seafood dinner at Tiongson Arcade, a dampa-style wet market of fresh seafood that would be cooked to your liking by a restaurant of your choice, and tuna products, cut and packaged (insulated to preserve its freshness) for take-out, at Citra Mina Seafood Market, perfect for pasalubong.
At the fish port, the fact did not escape me that it was a place of carnage. In this post-hunting age, it was rather unnerving to see the actual creatures before they were cut and cooked beyond recognition to become our food. From then on, I would truly mean the Japanese expression of gratitude before a meal: itadakimasu – humbly partaking of this food and acknowledging the sacrifice of animals for our nutrition and of farmers and fishermen for our daily bread.