The hunt for Mabuti Sardines

By: Ambeth R. Ocampo - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/ | August 28,2020 - 08:30 AM

Mabuti was an imported brand of tinned sardines that lives in the memory of senior citizens. We never had Mabuti in the home pantry; I first heard of it from my father (born 1925) and E. Aguilar Cruz (born 1918), who waxed nostalgic about its taste and related it to their boyhoods in Pampanga. If you ask me what sardines I like, it’s a toss between Cuca, imported Spanish sardines, and the spicy “Spanish-style sardines” from Dipolog, either Montaños or Zaragoza brand, in that order.

I know Dipolog, Zamboanga del Norte, for three things: first, as a connecting point to Dapitan, Rizal’s place of exile (1892-1896); second, as the hometown of retired Supreme Court justice Adolf Azcuna; and third as the bottled sardine capital of the Philippines. Unlike Spam, Vienna sausage, and corned beef that are regular breakfast staples with fried eggs, sardines are at best kept in our pantry as an emergency protein, to tide us over when out of fresh food and we are too lazy for a grocery run.

A breakfast of Zaragoza spicy sardines the other day made me examine the small bottle with about a dozen fish tightly packed, soaked in olive oil (those made with corn oil are slightly cheaper), and seasoned with iodized salt, chili, and spices. Each bottle comes with pickle and carrot slices that are then left on the plate, because we consider it inedible decoration. I compared Zaragoza with our last sardine breakfast of spicy (picantes) Cuca sardines from Spain that had fewer fish, about half a dozen, but of a larger size, like a lumberman’s thumb or Bulacan pastillas before inflation.

Comparing the packages, I realized that Cuca are authentic sardines harvested from the Atlantic coast, compared with the “Spanish-style” sardines from Dipolog that are, according to an informant, actually a type of mackerel. This made me rethink the reference in Rizal’s juvenile diary about his favorite breakfast of “sardinas secas,” which I translated literally as “dried sardines.” A big mistake, because tuyo are dried, salted, herring! From the Cuca sardines packaging, I read that each can comes inside a cardboard box, and the company, established in 1932, boasts of artisanal preparation, each fish handled manually to preserve its flavor and later enhanced with sunflower oil, tomate escabeche (pickled tomato), spices, gherkin, carrot, onion, cayenne, and salt.

Most Filipinos are familiar with the Mega, 555, and Ligo sardine brands that dominate the supermarket and sari-sari store shelves today. Ligo has an interesting history. Its trademark has nothing to do with the Filipino word for bathing; the brand originated from the Liberty Gold Fruit company of California, whose main products are tinned vegetables and fruits. In 1954, Gregory Tung became the exclusive Philippine distributor of Ligo sardines. His successful enterprise was inherited by his grandsons, who have since branded the product in a more contemporary way and even developed new products like that with “gata flavor,” now listed in the Ligo US website.

Mabuti sardines are Portuguese, not Spanish. Since mabuti (good) is not a Portuguese word, it was said that the brand was made specifically for the prewar Philippine market. Mabuti is still manufactured by Pinhais & Cia, one of the oldest existing sardine canners in Portugal, established in Matosinhos in 1920. Since Mabuti is not readily available in Manila, I was hoping to bring home a box as pasalubong from the famous sardine store in Lisbon, but it did not carry the item. When I inquired about Mabuti during my two trips to Lisbon last year, I was told that Mabuti was made in limited quantities for the North American market. Pinhais & Cia still makes the following sardine brands: Anteo, Amourette, Buzon, Cibeles, Swan, Comet, Edusa, Hebe, Hio, les Ailes, Mabuti, Sailor, Mascatto, Matapan, Matusa, Nuri, P., Fisherman, Pinhais, Rivers, Sailor, Semper Idem, and Yo.

The local search for Mabuti continues, and sightings have been reported in Unimart, Cherry, and Hi-Top supermarkets. I found some on Shopee. Also sighted was Matapan, which might have been made for the Philippine market, too. But after checking, I found out that Matapan[g] isn’t the misspelled Philippine word for bravery; it refers to Cape Matapan, Greece, the site of an important naval battle in World War II.

So much history extracted from a sardine breakfast.


Comments are welcome at aocampo@

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