In addition to grouper or “lapu-lapu”, snapper or “maya-maya”, trevally or “talakitok”, emperor or “katambak” and rabbitfish or “kitong”, which are among the tastiest fishes that I usually catch shore fishing in my Playground along the coast of Bonnavista, Unawatuna, Galle in southern Sri Lanka, surgeonfish known as “labahita” in the Philippines, is also a prized catch in terms of taste and culinary importance.
It may not provide an adrenaline-pumping fight that most anglers dream to experience before landing the catch but is sure to give a pretty wonderful dining experience afterwards. With the succulence and distinct good taste of its flesh or meat, even a simple grilling or frying could easily transform the fish into a truly satisfying meal.
“Labahita” is actually a fish that belongs to the “Acanthuridae” or "thorn tail" family which includes about 80 species in six genera of surgeonfishes, tangs and unicornfishes which all lives around coral reefs in tropical seas. Surgeonfishes sometimes feed on algae as solitary individuals, but they also often travel and feed in schools. It is considered that feeding in schools is an effective way for them to overcome the highly aggressive defense responses of small territorial damselfishes that vigorously guard the patches of algae that they particularly like to feed on.
Due to the thick, dark and quite tough skin of the fish, “labahita” is commonly prepared fillet. The white succulent flesh is usually seasoned or lightly marinated and then fried or grilled or baked. It is likewise perfect for the popular English dish called “fish and chips”.
For the three medium surgeonfish I recently purchased from the Tarlac City wet market which the fish monger gladly filleted upon my request, I decided to make a simple fried fish fillet intended for the kids’ school lunch. They like the taste of fish and serving it like in the “fish and chips” I believe would satisfy their varied discriminating tastes.
First, I marinated the fish in about 2 tbsp “calamansi” extract (you can substitute either lemon or lime), 2 gloves garlic finely minced, ½ tsp ground pepper and 1 tsp salt.
The other ingredients needed to coat the fish are: 1 cup all-purpose flour, a dash of onion powder, a dash of garlic powder, 1 tbsp or small sachet seasoning or 1 pc chicken cube, crumpled, ½ tsp slightly toasted and then ground cayenne red pepper and ½ tsp salt. I would have added a dash of chili powder or Spanish paprika but the kids might not like it so I opted not to include it just this time.
Mix the above ingredients all-together in a wide bowl and set aside. In addition, about a cup of vegetable oil for frying is required.
To prepare for frying, arrange the fish fillets and flour mixture side by side. Take one fillet at a time and thoroughly coat it on all sides with the flour mixture as shown below. Continue coating the fillets in batches.
In a medium, deep and heavy bottomed pan, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high flame until hot but not smoking. Fry the fully coated fish fillet in batches. When slightly browned and crisp, flip over to cook the underside.
Continue cooking until all the fish are fried. Drain excess oil from the cooked fish using paper towels. Transfer the cooked fish fillets in a medium plate and serve warm.
As intended, mine was served as school lunch for my kids along with a hefty serving of steamed rice and some dipping sauce. :-)
This is an easy lunch or “baon” idea for the kids. You can do it quickly and it will still be elaborately yummy and healthy! Enjoy! c“,)