As the days get colder here in the Southern Hemisphere, clear hot broths will be making a showing on the menu more often. One hot soup that gets regular rotation during the cold months in the Philippines is Sinigang and it has the same reputation in the Philippines regarding colds and flu as chicken soup does elsewhere.
The typical sinigang recipes currently being made in the Philippines is either an almost whole day affair in preparation with literally a dozen or more ingredients (the traditional method), or something made quickly around a packet of flavoured powder. This recipe allows you to have the full experience of sinigang without the afternoon lost… and without that flavor packet.
What makes a sinigang a sinigang?
To be frankly honest, sinigang isn’t something I called a favourite dish growing up. It was so ubiquitous that I might have named rice a favourite dish first. But it was the type of dish for me that was unlooked for but when it was served it was consumed with gusto and mercilessly cleaned off the serving bowl.
I suppose it is the way my mom would make it: from off-cuts that couldn’t make it into other dishes and if one had too many vegetables. I remember how my mom would prepare the tamarind (also known as “sampaloc”) stock by simmering the fruits and then crushing them before using them on already cut and prepared vegetables. It was yummy, but if the dish was a frankenstein of ingredients from other dishes you tend to remember the other dishes… except for those ingredients primarily bought for sinigang.
Notably it is the one dish that my mom regularly bought okra for—perhaps the only ingredient other than tamarind that was purposely bought specifically for this dish. Like every kid I knew then, we would pretend to love the okra to our parents’ faces but then secretly find a way to get rid of the slimy little things.
But I grew up and even the okras would be ingested without mercy and the soup licked off the bowl. Even then, I didn’t think I would miss it.
I was in Australia two months in and facing the last month of Autumn before the winter, feeling very cold in our apartment on the second floor (or first floor, as some Aussies insist it is correctly called, because obviously the first floor and ground floor are entirely two different things) and joblessly waiting for my wife to come home that the full brunt of sinigang-homesickness hit me that soup and stock cubes couldn’t cure.
So, the first chance I got was to go to some Asian store and get myself some of those sinigang flavour mixes in a packet—my mum eventually graduated to using these flavour packets because they were not only more convenient but more consistent in flavour. Surely I can make myself some sinigang now, right?
It literally takes over a minute to enumerate the ingredients for it, and with each passing second I was getting more and more crestfallen. How was I going to source these ingredients? Pinoys can be very, very anal about recipes if they don’t have the right ingredients; and nowhere is this more anal than in sinigang. The only reason why we Pinoys accept sinigang made with envelopes of powder because we are assured that that powder is made of actual tamarind… actual miso… actual guavas. But this also extends to what we call the “sahog” or incidental ingredients—just the right root crop and nothing else. Just the right greens and nothing else.
So, those flavour packets stayed put in our pantry until it went past its use by date three years later. Meanwhile, I went, bought and used other flavour packets for other Pinoy dishes (kare-kare, menudo, afritada, even sinangag) that had a fraction of the ingredients that sinigang seemed to have.
But my memory was too short: my mother used significantly less ingredients than this and I had eaten sinigang in a lot of households that did not have “the works”… but all I saw and remembered was that long list and the old ladies shaking their heads and muttering “that’s not sinigang”.
The only times I would taste sinigang again is when my family would visit the Philippines, and usually we get the ones served in the posh restaurants, further reinforcing the impression that a true sinigang should have all these representative ingredients.
The first ray of hope I had that I will ever cook my own sinigang was because of a Master Chef contender in her show “Poh’s Kitchen”.
Wait, not that Po.
This Poh—it was the episode when Poh and a guest chef (Dennis Leslie) made some Fish Sinigang.
But you will see very quickly in this video that the Dennis ran afoul of his aunties because he dared use lemon grass instead of tamarind. A quick look at the comments and you’ll see that opinion is divided.
It is sinigang because it is sour.
No, it is not sinigang because sinigang never uses lemon grass.
But the reason why this video gave me hope because, at this point, I didn’t care if what I ate was technically sinigang or not as long as it tastes like sinigang.
The thing is, sinigang and sisig are supposedly derived from the same root word that refers to “sour”—some say it’s a Kapampangan root word (a language I don’t know), some insist it’s Tagalog, a language I know… though I’ve never heard it used in any other context except in sinigang.
Sisigan means “to snack on something sour”, while sisigang, or isigang means “to cook something in sour”—it’s hard to explain to English speakers but those words sound like very different things. It’s like “genre” and “gender”, two words that sound kinda similar but mean different things… but come from the same root word, “genus” that means “kind”. So, something like that.
My point is, they both point to “sour”. Even Pinoy ads admit it, except they use another Pinoy word for sour: “asim” (and they use it with another word, “kilig”, which means “thrill”… “sour thrill”… or something).
Aaaaaaaah, well… It’s still all about the sampaloc.
As you know, my mother has been visiting and we’ve been trying to squeeze her dry of all the recipes I enjoyed as a kid but never got to learn (the why is an interesting story, already hinted at in some of our posts, regarding “the method”). Even then, I didn’t think of asking her to teach me how to make sinigang.
Now, in between all those things, we’ve still been experimenting with our own dishes. Now, Xtine has been experimenting with her very own beef rib supreme and thought, hey, what if I used pork ribs instead?
Long story short, she didn’t get to use all of it and left it in the fridge.
While we were both away on our day jobs, my mom saw the left-over ribs and a bunch of spinach and chilli peppers and did what she always does when she has left-over ribs, a bunch of greens and chilli peppers.
She made sinigang.
When we came home later that night, we ate our experiments of the previous day for dinner when my mom said “Oh, would you like some soup? I made sinigang.”
And just like that all the decades were peeled away as we supped deep into the freshest, tastiest, refreshingly sour clear broth in a very long time.
“Nanay!” I cried. “Where did you get the sinigang flavor mix?”
“Wala akong ginamit na flavor mix I,” she said, a bit shyly. “All I had were some of the left-over lime… don’t worry, I’ll try better next time and get real sinigang flavor for real siniga—”
My wife and I never gave her a chance to finish as we were high-fiving and shouting “Lime sinigang! Freakin’ Lime Sinigang!!! Super freakin’ Lime Sinigang that tastes like Sinigang!!!” and other such nonsense. Our little daughter, in the meantime, was asking for seconds.
So, what makes a sinigang a sinigang?
You know that there are different kinds of sour: lemons vs limes, limes vs oranges, the different kinds of oranges, the kind of sour you get from sauteed tomatoes vs boiled tomatoes… it goes on.
But there were different kinds of sinigang already using different kinds of souring agents.
What makes a sinigang a sinigang? It was so obvious: the thrill of sourness.
We made her show us, not once but twice. Each time, my mom was objecting and insisting that true sinigang uses this and this and that and that ingredient. It’s like somebody telling her that pizza can be made with just pizza dough, cheese and tomato sauce. But we insisted on keeping it simple.
And that recipe we humbly present to you.