Much Ado About Sinigang

Sinigang is a sour soup from the Philippines that has made an indelible mark on my food memory. I’ve been eating it all my life, and have no desire to ever stop.

When my mother married my father, she was familiar with Filipino culture because her father- my grandfather was a Spaniard that spent his childhood and young adulthood in the Philippines. Combine that with my mother’s brief stint of living in Honolulu (me thinks history repeats itself sometimes) my mother had a working knowledge of Filipino culture and cuisine.

But she couldn’t cook Filipino food at all. But don’t come for her now, because her Filipino kitchen is strong.

Whenever my mother learned a new Filipino dish she would cook it repeatedly until I complained that I hated it. (Read: tinola and kare-kare… she also did it with this weird lemon chicken dish, and come to think of it my father did spend a good deal of 2003 and 2004 obsessed with turkey burgers…actually, I’m going to save this part of the conversation for my therapist.) But she never heard any complaints from me about sinigang. The tart, tangy, sour soup was probably the only way I would eat my vegetables, so she didn’t really have any complaints either.

Yet, herein lies the dilemma. This soup was always prepared for me at home from the delicious little packet of Filipino goodness made by Mama Sita, and sometimes Knorr. (In retrospect, Mama Sita somewhat resembled my yaya or babysitter, and I always wanted to adopt the old Knorr Poulty logo as a pet.) This was the way to make sinigang, but then I realized that MSG isn’t a welcomed guest to my culinary parties anymore.

Not Madison Square Garden, monosodium glutamate. That member of the salt family that we always asked Chinese take-out places never to include because of unsubstantiated theories and unconfirmed rumors.

In any case, I wasn’t about that packet life anymore, because getting as close to how my kupuna or ancestors prepared food is important to me. I like food history. And the choices I had at home were only between Knorr and Mama Sita.

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The dilemma was real, real I say. More real that the time that I had to make my first payment to Sallie Mae. I had to figure out if I could secure fresh tamarind or reduced-preservative tamarind food product.

Then I realized that I live in the greatest city in the world. And like my cousin Ian says : “New Yorkers never have to leave New York to see the world. The world comes to us.”

So then all it required was a trip to either Manhattan’s Chinatown or Little India.

I chose Chinatown first because I know for a fact that at Asian Market Corp they carry a number of Filipino speciality products, like Bangus and Tuyo and Bagoong!

So off to Asia Market Corp I go, and low and behold:

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They had fresh tamarind and tamarind paste! Now, according to Panlasang Pinoy (a really good Filipino Food blog, might I add) it’s best to use unripe Tamarind, so I opted for the paste instead, given that the tamarind in the basket was sweet already. Now that the tamarind dilemma was solved, I could pick up the rest of the (easy) ingredients and get to work.

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For this recipe, I took advantage of frozen okra , frozen calamansi puree and frozen bangus (milkfish)

  • 1 and 1/2 cup of tamarind paste
  • 1-2 packets of calamansi concentrate
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tbs of minced ginger
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 1 chayote, cubed
  • 2 cups of string beans
  • 1 cup of okra
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. Patis
  • 2 tbsp. Canola oil for sautéing and browning.
  • Baby spinach to taste.
  • 2 unseasoned bangus bellies.
  • 1 1/2 quarts of water.

 

First things first, start with sautéing onions  with ginger until translucent and not brown in canola oil. Add garlic, just until the scent of the base is aromatic and the base itself isn’t browned. Add 1/2 cup of tamarind paste and 1 packet of calamansi and continue to heat until a distinct tangy-savory aroma fills the air.

(You gotta use all your senses when cooking Filipino food. I also used my hearing by listening to the lovely remixed soundtrack of “Here Lies Love“)

Add the water and allow to come to boil. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper and patis and the rest of the tamarind paste and bring to a simmer. After about 10 minutes of simmer, add chayote. Allow to simmer for another 20 minutes.

While that’s simmering, rinse and pat dry bangus bellies. Make sure they dry good because they won’t brown and that adds flavor. Brown about 5 minutes on each side in the 1 tbsp of canola oil. Bangus bellies tend to have some fat in them, so there’s not a need to add more than 1tbsp of oil.

 

Once the chayote is fork tender, add the bangus bellies, string beans and okra to pot. Allow to cook for an additional 10 minutes, until veggies are cooked through.

Add some fresh spinach, and season to taste with Patis (fish sauce).

 

AND ENJOY, BRAH! I admit this is my first time attempting singang in this way and I was pretty pleased with myself. Much respect to Mama Sita, but man, I did good.

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This soup is really good on a cold winter day, especially when you think you’re starting to feel sick. I can’t tell you how much I’ve relied on it.

One of the most beautiful things about singing is that it’s a very versatile dish that can be made with chicken, shrimp, beef, pork (!!!), salmon, seitan, and with a guava base instead of a tamarind…

Do you have any favorite soups that are great for the winter months? Let me know in the comments below and let’s have a soup kiki.

 

And for the record, when I was a young child, I always thought this chicken was so cute.

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It was  the cutest chicken until I discovered Chicken in A Biskit, but that’s another story.

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