By Danny O. Calleja
SORSOGON CITY, 5July2013 – Fried, adobo or cooked in coconut milk with lot of chili to taste like the super hot “Bicol express,” baluko — a meaty shellfish which has been a popular wet market commodity here — makes exotic delicacies for seafood lovers.
Baluko is actually the pen shell (Pinnidae) whose meat looks like a hybrid of scallops and mussel with some tentacle-like extensions.
This mollusk has a long, triangular or wedge-shaped shell and attached to rocks or shells in sandy, shallow ocean bottoms.
A stiff pen shell can be up to 12 inches long and 6.5 inches wide.
It has a brown or purplish-brown color and 15 or more radiating ribs that fan out across the shell.
It may also have erect, tubular spines and found on sandy bottoms in shallow water.
It attaches with its byssal threads, pointed end down.
Pen shells have considerable economic importance here as food and, according to Serafin Lacdang, head of the Fisheries Division of the Provincial Agricultural Office, they produce pearls of moderate value.
Along the approach of the seaport here, residents of a squatter colony — mostly fishermen, sell fresh meat of this mollusk from P35 to P60 per kilo (depending on the volume of stocks) and make it available to buyers who come for it every day.
The fishermen display the shells in huge containers filled with seawater to keep them alive and preserve their freshness.
They extract the meat from the shell for buyers and one problem is the dumping site for the empty shells that now end up being dumped into the nearby waters to become garbage, causing siltation and pollution of the sea floor.
Since empty shells have been serving as nuisance, Lacdang said, studies are now being conducted on how to come up with an industry out of it.
In other countries, he said, material made from the holdfast is being utilized in the manufacture of clothing such as gloves, shawls, stockings and cloaks.
Apparel made from this material has an attractive golden hue and this item was greatly valued by the ancients.
The shells are carved to form decorative articles and entire valves of larger specimens are sometimes used as plates, Lacdang added.
There are two versions of fried pen shell meat that Sorsogueños do — one is to simply season it with salt and pepper, then deep fry it in a pan for a few minutes.
Another way to do it is to coat it with a butter made up of flour, salt and pepper before deep frying.
The plain and buttered pen shell meat tastes the same, except that the latter has more texture and crunch in them which most eaters prefer.
The fried meat is crunchy on the outside and a bit chewy, the round part of the meat tastes like scallops, too, and the tentacle like extension are like bland and less chewy versions of squid tentacles.
It is eaten with plain vinegar dip or spicy vinegar dip which is a mixture of vinegar, garlic, onion and chili.
“I totally enjoyed my first encounter with this type of shellfish. I have yet to find pen shell meat markets outside Sorsogon so cooking and eating baluko is definitely on my ‘to do’ list for our next trip to the city,” according to Eleonor Mesa, a summer vacationer from Manila.
“Adobong baluko is a delicacy which became my instant favorite during my week-long stay and you can call it destiny because every day, so many pen shells are unloaded from the bancas at the pier,” she said.
According to Lacdang, pen shells are filter feeders, and eat small particles passing through the water.
They have a scallop-like adductor muscle (the muscle that opens and closes the shells) and are edible.
They also produce black pearls which may be used in jewelry, he said.
Sorsogon Bay is home to this shellfish species that has emerged as the second top earner for local fisherfolk next to green mussel here, Lacdang said.
“We have a lot of this species now because the five years of red tide infestation of Sorsogon Bay, starting from 2007 to 2012, gave way to its growth and preservation as harvesting, selling, transporting and eating them have been banned like all other shell fish species from the bay,” he said.
Boyet Levantino, a pen shell diver from Barangay Talisay that covers the seaport, said he could harvest around 500 shells in a day’s outing and sells these himself to buyers along the port.
“I make an average of P1,000 in net income daily from this,” he told the PNA in Sorsogueño dialect.
He said buyers come and go on a daily basis and some tourists and visitors would buy in bulks as a take-home food item.
Mila Duran, a street side eatery operator, said most of her customers prefer baluko Bicol express a Bicolano native concoction that is made up of long chili, coconut milk and plenty of garlic.
The dish is named that way (derived from the Philippine National Railways train, Bicol Express, plying Manila-Bicol route) because it is so peppery hot that it can send one on an express trip to the showers.
Bicol express concoction is originally a lot of red and green chili stripped of their pulp and seeds and shredded or cut in diagonal strips and cooked with fatty pork and “alamang.”
The coconut milk is boiled down and reduced to almost just the shiny oil rather than the creamy. (PNA)