Fish Tales: Tawilis of Lake Taal

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 16 comments
Deep-fried Tawilis
An Island Afire

Perhaps there had been a cool breeze that night, dissipating the day's humidity from the air, making it more comfortable to sleep. Perhaps there were some souls still up that night, finishing the last of the day's chores, moving about in the soft glow of candlelight or under the gentle beam of moonlight. Perhaps that night began as serenely and restfully as others before, until a long-dormant fury finally, violently awakened...

"On May 15, 1754, at about 9 or 10 o'clock in the night, the volcano quite unexpectedly commenced to roar and emit, sky-high, formidable flames intermixed with glowing rocks which, falling back upon the island and rolling down the slopes of the mountain, created the impression of a large river of fire.
"The columns of fire and smoke ascended higher than ever before, increasing every moment in volume, and setting fire to the whole island... All this was accompanied by terrific lightning and thunder above, and violent shocks of earthquakes underneath.
"We left the town, fleeing from this living picture of Sodom, with incessant fear lest the raging waters of the lake overtake us..."
(Maso, 9)

Lake Taal, ca. 1734
(Image source)
This mesmerizing firsthand account of Nature's destructive power came from a priest known only as Father Buencuchillo, who chronicled a series of cataclysmic eruptions of Taal Volcano in 1754 that lasted nearly seven months and destroyed three towns, including his own parish, and surrounding hamlets. The doomed habitations lay along the shores of Lake Bombon, which itself was a water-filled ancient caldera and an extension of nearby Balayan Bay in Batangas Province, Philippines. Rising from the lake's center, Taal Volcano had been seething for centuries, occasionally releasing ferocious outbursts every few generations, until it could no longer contain itself on that summer evening. When the mountain had at last exhausted itself by December, shell-shocked residents could only pick up the pieces of a drastically changed landscape:

"Soon afterward I resolved to visit my beautiful town of Taal; nothing was left of it except the walls of the church and convento... Thus the beautiful town of Taal remains a deserted wilderness and reduced to the utmost misery, while once it was one of the richest and most flourishing places.
"The worst of all is, that, the mouth of the river Pansipit having been blocked, the lake is rising and invading the towns of Lipa and Tanauan..."
(Maso, 10-11)

The people of Taal, Lipa and Tanauan eventually rebuilt their towns at a safer distance from the volcano, leaving behind ruins such as those of the original Basilica of St. Martin de Tours (the present edifice is considered the largest Catholic church in Asia) to be found above ground today. Meanwhile, what are believed to be the remains of Tanauan can be seen (mainly by experienced divers) beneath the opaque waters of the now-renamed Lake Taal. But no manmade site can compare to the natural wonder at the center of it all.

The Evolution of a Delicacy

An island within a lake
on an island...

(Photo: Wikipedia)
First of all, Lake Taal is a veritable geologic matryoshka doll: an island (Vulcan Point) within a lake (Crater Lake) on an island (Volcano Island) within a lake (Lake Taal) on an island (Luzon) [see image]. If that weren't enough, it also holds the distinction as the only habitat on earth of the sole species of exclusively freshwater sardines - Sardinella tawilis.

As Fr. Buencuchilla recounted, the massive eruptions of 1754 severely narrowed the once-wide channel of the Pansipit River that connected Lake Taal to Balayan Bay and the sea beyond, and subsequently trapped marine species within. As a result, the saline lake, no longer being fed by sea water, eventually transformed into a freshwater body to which formerly saltwater fish, such as the sardines, had to adapt in order to survive.

Today, Lake Taal tawilis are a popular delicacy prepared in different ways, such as smoking (tinapang tawilis), stewing in vinegar (paksiw na tiwilis) or deep-frying, and eaten in its entirety, head to tail. I recently munched on the latter, dipping them in vinegar with chilies, and found them to be satisfyingly crisp, tasty and as addictive as fish-shaped french fries. I had barely licked the last bit of flavor from my fingertips before I was craving more. Wanting to learn about what was sure to be my new favorite snack, I went a-Googling . . . and promptly lost my appetite with this single phrase:

"As with all species consisting of a single population in one location, a local extinction event will most probably lead to species extinction."

Fish pens on Lake Taal
I have done and will probably do many foolish, thoughtless things in my lifetime, but contributing to the eradication of an entire species is hopefully not one of them. A decade-old study of the tawilis population in Lake Taal noted an alarming decrease in its numbers due to overfishing and warned that growing numbers of tilapia, a farmed fish introduced into the lake and which competes with tawilis for algae as food, could overtake the sardines and drive them out of the food chain. Given their precarious status, I hesitated to post about my enjoyable experience eating them.

But for once, I am happy to admit being duped - it turns out that the flavorful fried fish I was munching was more than likely an impostor. Like Kleenex and Q-Tips, the tawilis 'brand' name has become a generic term, allowing pseudo-tawilis (other saltwater sardines) to be found in abundance at local wet markets and grocery store chains for relatively low price. Some will say that consuming these counterfeit Clupeidae is therefore not an authentic tawilis-eating experience and they are correct. But it would be difficult to swallow authenticity at the expense of the very survival of such a unique species. So instead, I will savor the amazing true story of Lake Taal as I enjoy some ersatz tawilis. I'd call that a happy ending for all.

Work Cited

Maso, M.S. (1911). The Eruption of Taal Volcano - January 30, 1911. Report from the Weather Bureau. Manila: Bureau of Printing

Volcano Island, viewed from Tagaytay cliffs
Active Taal Volcano is the larger land mass behind the smaller cone


  • chef_d said...

    Oh wow, I didn't know the origin of tawilis was linked to the volcano, I just hope the deep-fried ones I buy from Salcedo market are also not the endangered tawilis!

  • walk2write said...

    What a fascinating account! You really do relish the food you eat. I'm glad (at least in this case) that the animal on the menu has been protected by substitution, sneaky or not.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thank you all for your lovely comments! I'm so pleased that you enjoyed this post. The photos of Lake Taal barely capture how amazing it is, with Volcano Island right in its center. As usual, I'll have to return later for more proper responses... 8-)

  • ChichaJo said...

    Great post! I've been to Tagaytay many times but never made it down to Taal...must change that soon! And must also stop eating tawilis...they are delicious and I love them deep fried but did not know they were in danger of extinction :( Will definitely have other sardines instead from now on!

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    That's so neat about the tawilis, and it is sad to hear about the possibility of losing them. I just received some honey from Hawaii that is made from the nectar of a flower that only grows near on the volcanic slopes. The earth's ecosystems are truly special and amazing - we must make choices to preserve as much as we can! Thanks for sharing - I had no idea about fresh water sardines.

  • Ipat Luna said...

    The illegal fishing has been stopped since 2005. There are one or two boats that still try to violate, but not like in previous years. In fact tawilis fisheries has declined not only because the fish is fast disappearing but also because there are fewer tawilis fishermen -- they have either switched to tilapia (and frequently request the government for seeding to the detriment of the ecosystem) or have gone abroad.
    There are initiatives to protect the lake
    but the tawilis is so little studied that it is hard to make management prescriptions for its conservation other than general ones, like reduction of fish cages. There has been on exhaustive fish survey in Taal since the 1930's and the best use of research resources now is to conduct that as well as to determine what management prescriptions will save the tawilis other than the obvious ones.

  • Lori said...

    I have to say that seafood and fish is one of the most confusing culinary topics out there. You can never be sure of exactly what you are getting unless you fish it yourself! In this case, that turned out to be a good thing. That last photo is stunning!

  • Daily Spud said...

    What a fascinating story and lends credence to those who would contend that eating is (or at least can be) a political act. Thank goodness for fakery and a happy ending!


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