I knew the oil wasn’t hot enough when the fish balls hissed only feebly.  I expected the pool of oil to bubble furiously as soon as I dropped the fish balls in the wok but all I got was a scant sizzle.

I knew I was too impatient.  I waited on pins and needles while the frozen store-bought fish balls thawed in a colander by the sink but I was too anxious to wait any longer.  Too anxious to fry them and drench them in sweet and sour sauce.  Too anxious for seconds.  For more.

You really couldn’t blame me.   The wait had been far too long.  I miss my carefree college days when deep-fried fish balls skewered into bamboo sticks was a staple.  Hey, wait. Carefree? Who am I kidding?  I was a bookish Engineering student back then who took the Laws of Thermodynamics seriously and burned the midnight oil relentlessly.   My regular dose of fish balls with friends in the late afternoons before the long jeepney ride home kept me sane for the most part during those tough college years.  Fish balls along with fast food fried chicken and the famous silog plates at the University Shopping Center nourished me throughout those years.

I still remember very well the fish ball cart on campus and the cheerful old man who fried fish balls all his life.  We never knew his name but fondly called him Manong [Mah-nong], an Ilokano term of endearment, which means older brother. Manong always parked his cart next to the evergreen lawn, under the century-old acacia tree right outside the hallowed Melchor Hall.  The sage-colored wooden cart, like most other, was fitted with a deep wok called kawali that sat on a gas burner.  Attached along its rim were pieces of twisted wire that you pushed down against when you threaded deep-fried fish balls into a stick.

Next to the hot kawali was a snug compartment that held a dingy tin can packed with bamboo sticks and a row of tall coffee jars reused to hold dipping sauces:  sweet and sour, and vinegar infused with fiery siling labuyo, which I obviously avoided.  The cart had a flimsy roof that provided meager shelter from the rain and the sun.

Manong’s fish ball cart was perpetually abuzz.  There would always be a swarm of folks around his cart in the afternoons, just in time for merienda.  Young and old alike traded quips and exchanged stories while they took turns dunking their fish balls in their favorite sauce.  Friendships were forged, however fleeting, over deep-fried fish balls.




Before long, the fish balls sizzled as I slid them down the side of my wok.  The heat of the oil seared their skin to a delicious golden crisp.  I gingerly fished them with my trusted spider, skewered them into bamboo sticks, and dipped them in my homemade sweet and sour sauce.  They were good but not as good as the ones back home.  But these would do, I thought.  These would do.

The humble fish balls-on-a-stick is the quintessential Filipino street food.  Its roots are clearly Chinese.  Its ingredients?  Don’t ask me what they are made of.  I have shunned away from this probing question.  Pollock, maybe. Cod. Perhaps, the Filipino favorite milkfish.  Who knows.  One thing’s for sure.  Deep-fried fish balls drenched in sweet and sour sauce are truly Filipino comfort food on a stick.


Fish Balls Sweet and Sour Sauce Recipe, makes one cup sauce

1/2 cup vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 cup water
1 tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

Combine vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Whisk the cornstarch in the sauce and let it simmer until it thickens, around five minutes. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

When frying store-bought fish, shrimp, and squid balls, make sure that they have been completely thawed and are at room temperature.  Make sure, too, that the oil is sufficiently hot, around 180 degrees F.  Fry the fish balls in small batches until golden brown, around a minute or two.




Learn the alphabet of Filipino food through our glossary. So much is lost in translation, I know, but I hope this glossary will help those unfamiliar with Filipino food become more informed.

A is for Achuete
B is for Barako Coffee
C is for Camarón
D is for Dinuguan
E is for Ensaimada
F is for Fish Balls

  • Ann

    now I’m craving this really bad! ;)

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Sadly, the frozen fish balls in the Asian grocery stores here in the States aren’t the same as the one we have back home.  Remember the ones we grew up with — those that deflate when you skewered them.  The fish balls here in the States are different.  They are more like meatballs but made with white fish meat.  I was in a Ranch 99 last weekend and saw fish balls from China made with bangus!

    WOW! You left the homeland when you were 13.  How often do you go back and visit?

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Beans and rice?  I would live off beans and rice anytime.

  • http://thislittlepiggywenttothemarket.blogspot.com Lala

    oh Babs, i love fishballs but i wasn’t allowed to eat them LOL. mi mama said they were dirty fr the street vendors but i did sneak in some whenever she wasn’t around.

    totally agree, they’re not the same, but something is better than none at all, right?


  • http://www.foodwanderings.blogspot.com foodwanderings

    Gorgeous series. Wonderful fish balls recipe. As stunning as usual Jun. Love every aspect of your site and what comes across as your personality.  Now am stopping from gushing, I think I am just delighted at last I can post.:)

  • Anonymous

    I have only been back twice. One for a funeral and another for a visit for my sick Aunt.  sometime in the 1990 and the last one almost 6 years ago.   I still have family (my mom’s sister and brother) but otherwise all the family group is here.

    Ranch 99 is only reliable for some products so I try not to buy anything similar ha ha. And yes those fish balls were light and pop in your mouth nicely.

  • http://www.asianinamericamag.com Betty Ann fr Asianinamericamag

    Jun, once again this is a classic. Do you have any idea how many college memories you just rekindled? I can just picture those little fried balls that blossom when dipped into the hot fying wok, then how they shrivelled when the street vendor brought it out. And who can forget that huge tall bottle of sweet sour sauce as you described it so aptly ! Thanks for this post. What a delight it was to read :)

  • Samanthafoodgeek

    I was one of those who was warned against eating fish balls without any real reason why. This makes me want to challenge my parents’ prejudice against this tasty looking treat. Amazing how even college food leaves such an imprint on our food habits and memories. Sadly, mine centered around (whispering) Taco Bell!

  • http://www.kimchimom.com Amy Kim

    oooooo! I have to try this! I just bought a bag of fish balls! This sounds so good…

  • http://www.beyondtheplate.net/ Danielle

    You’re bringing back memories for me too! Nothing quite like biting into a freshly-fried fishball for an afternoon snack. The only downside is having a fishy breath after! Thank goodness for mints :)

  • Anonymous

    I’m kind of suspicious that the fish balls in UP aren’t really made of fish, otherwise they’d cost so much more..haha. Anyway they’re still good, though I prefer the more meaty squidballs. Just curious, naabutan mo ba si Mang Larry (isawan in front of Kalayaan?)

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Your kimchi jigae looks so delicious! Now, you can deep-fry your leftover fish balls and make a sweet and sour sauce!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Did I hear Taco Bell? *pointing finger on you*

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Celine, you were too sheltered when you were a kid. I bet you rebelled and had your fish balls on a stick from time to time!

  • Anonymous

    I like the last skewer, yes the burnt one and the second one too!  They must be super-crispylicious.  And with that sauce, ahh with that sauce.  Oppps, please excuse me because. . . I just double dipped in that yummy sawsawan! he he he  :)

  • http://twitter.com/shootsandroots6 Melissa Beach

    This is a beautifully written story.  Love your descriptions.  Like I was there with you. Bravo!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank heavens for Mentos!

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Isawan in front of Kalayaan? I vaguely remember. I was there 1990 to 1996. Six bittersweet years.  When were you in UP?

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    No double-dipping, please. :-)

  • http://lifesafeast.blogspot.com Jamie

    What wonderful, colorful, flavorful memories and what gorgeous photos. Simple but so beautiful. And love the sauce.

  • Anonymous

    was in UP 96-01. Just mentioned it because he’s one of the vendors in UP who have ‘leveled up’ (e.g. now has a branch elsewhere, has a digital sign, order slips, people now in uniforms, fresh fruit shakes, etc.). nice to see people like mang larry grow their business through the years. the fishball stands also have a lot of new menu offerings, like value-meal type items such as fishball+pancit canton, plus a number of other combinations. 

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Asenso si Mang Larry! :-) It’s an inspiration to see folks like him grow their business. Next time I’m home, I’ll definitely hunt him down.  And value meals? Fish balls plus pancit? Sarap!

  • http://80breakfasts.blogspot.com/ joey

    This is indeed such a classic!  I live in Manila and even here I haven’t tasted fish balls as good as the ones on the street :)

  • Edithbpalma

    Very nice photos,  your fish ball looks very yummy, i also don’t allow Dwight, James & Aira to buy fish ball on the street unless the sawsawan are in a bottle to be poured onto a plastic cup, to avoid getting hepathitis, sosyal na nowadays fish/squid balls/kikiam are placed on plastic cups, sauce are poured onto the cups bamboo sticks are still used to fish them out.  Also i buy frozen fish/squid balls from the grocery to satisfy their cravings for them and we have instant fish ball party at home. will ask Aira to try your sweet & sour recipe.

  • Tresdelicious

    This is a traditional favorites of our relatives in Asia. I bet those taste fabulous with a sweet and sour twist.

  • Noe

    Sir Jun, actually nanews po ang fishballs sa Pinas a few weeks ba or months ago. Kasi may fish kill to diff parts of the Phils, sabi naman nung producers ng fishballs, safe daw yun kainin kasi hindi naman daw bangus etc ang ginagamit sa fishballs. Patis lang po hinahalo nila dun.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Lots of fond memories in CASAA like the Sizzler-type stall in the corner.  Sizzling porkchop cut so thin lavished with gravy.  Nothing beat that for lunch back those days.  So good! 

    Sadly, I was there six years and never witnessed an oblation run. Sigh.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Thank you for the news, Noe.  That explains why fish balls back home are so cheap.  There’s no fish. Only patis!

  • http://psychosomaticaddictinsane.wordpress.com/ iya

    ay diosmeh. namiss ko tuloy ang Peyups at ang fishball and buco juice combo ko. also mang larry’s isaw sa kalayaan! :D ,,,,,

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Mang Larry of Kalayaan’s a celebrity!  Someone else mentioned him earlier.  And balita ko may value meals na ang fishballs sa atin. Fishballs and pancit combo? Asenso!

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  • Mike Tinghitella

    I am not good at cooking this kind of thing.  Can you recommend any fish ball companies in the US and Canada? – i live in both places.

  • http://blog.junbelen.com/ Jun Belen

    Mike, I don’t have a particular brand that I can recommend.  Asian grocery store chains like Ranch 99 (do you have one nearby) usually have a selection that you can choose from.  Most if not all of them are made in China and come frozen.  I recently discovered fish balls made of bangus — milkfish, which tasted great.  I hope this helps.

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