In the year 1641, on January 4, majestic Mt. Asog, then an active volcano in the town of Buhi, Camarines Sur, in the island of Luzon, Philippines, made its first and last bid for extinction. It erupted into fiery life. The hills and valleys near its foot caved in, creating a deep chasm that rapidly filled with millions of gallons of fresh water. Thus was born Buhi Lake. In the decades, following the lake's dramatic debut, fish in a wide variety appeared, presumably introduced through the tiny streams that feed Buhi. One particularly interesting specimen came to be known as sinarapan.

No one knows now how the fish got its name. Perhaps it derives from the sarap, a fishing device used by local fishermen to catch it and who are themselves called para-sarap. Or perhaps it was 24 so-named because it is masarap, the Tagalog word used by Filipino gourmets when referring to an extremely delicious food item. The name, however, is less significant than the fact that sinarapan enjoys the distinction of being the world's tiniest edible vertebrate.

Buhi Lake is the only known place on earth where the sinarapan is found. A somewhat smaller species was discovered recently in the waters of Malabon, Rizal. But experts from the Philippine Bureau of Fisheries believe the fish to be rare and not available in commercial quantity.

Measuring approximately six to eight millimeters in length when fully grown, the sinarapan is so minute that it would take a thousand to fill a tablespoon. Scientifically, the pygmy goby is known as Mistichtys Luzonensis. Inhabitants of the Bicol Region where the fish is popularly known call it tabios. But in Buhi and in the neighbouring towns in the province of Camarines Sur, the fish remains the sinarapan.

It swims in schools of approximately 100,000 to 500,000 and is commonly harvested with a net called the sarap, a finely woven material made from the abaca fiber with two sides of its opening attached to long bamboo poles. The schools of sinarapan swim near sandy and rocky areas in Buhi Lake at an average depth of 7 to 10 meters. When dipped under water, the sarap yields about a handful to a cupful of sinarapan. To fill a container the size of a cookie jar, it would require at least 50 dippings of the sarap.

The best time of the day to catch it is about two hours before dawn and between three and four in the afternoon. The paratindang sinarapan, or sinarapan peddler, sells a plateful of catch for about US 10c. Sinarapan is delicious when cook. ed. Many Filipinos believe it to preserve the teeth from decay. If eaten raw with a few drops of lemon juice and a dash of salt, it is considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac.

Magnified 100 times by a microscope, the fish is seen to possess tiny scales, so transparent as to be almost invisible. Generally dark grey in colour, it has a backbone, as well as a "see through" submarine-like body, a pair of pectoral fins, one anal fin, a dorsal fin and also a brush-like caudal fin. Placed inside a table-top aquarium, a sinarapan lives for only about 10 minutes.

Sinarapan can be prepared in many ways. The favourite seems to be quickfrying, after which the sinarapan is garnished with slices of native tomatoes, onion leaves, crushed garlic, black pepper and salt.

One will truly savour the taste and aroma of sinarapan when it is cooked in coconut milk together with bits of vegetables and then spiced with Mexican chili. For breakfast, sinarapan omelet is a popular dish, served with Spanish-style fried rice (arroz a la Valenciana), pan de sal or salt bread and hot salabat, a sweet tangy drink prepared from a concoction of ginger root, sugar cane and tap water. Sinarapan-daing, or dried sinarapan, is generally washed down with beer, rum or whisky. Made by thin-spreading it like margarine on squared banana leaves, the daing is then dried under the sun for one day. Roasted over red-hot charcoal or fried in coconut oil, the daing crackles like soda crackers when eaten.

One advantage of sinarapan over the larger fish in Buhi Lake is that it need not be cleaned. Everything is eaten: scales, flesh, entrails and all. For this reason, Buhi villagers count themselves fortunate. They are, indeed, doubly so, in that the lake's supply of sinarapan does not permit its export. The world's smallest edible fish is enjoyed only by those who live within walking distance of Buhi Lake.(Originally titled "The World's Smallest Edible Fish," this article is reprinted from the March 3, 1974 issue of The Asia Magazine.) END HERE

Monday, June 16, 2003
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