I have brought the SINIGANG with me in my heart, all my life. I grew up eating it every week. Nowadays, I make it for my family several times a month, all year long. In the past, I never paid attention to why a dish that was so sour could warm our bellies and our hearts so fully.
I have brought homemade Sinigang soup with me to work or when I travel. Packed well, its sour flavors are even more fascinating the day after. It never fails to elicit questions from those unfamiliar with it. And I gladly offer an explanation. What is Sinigang?
Sinigang is a soup dish that is flavored to a tart, sourness. It is a melange of meats, seafood and vegetables. Its flavors combined make it an all-season versatile dish that can be eaten with rice, noodles or other menu items. The sour tastes come from backyard fruits and vegetables : tamarinds, the “kamias”, green mangoes, green guavas, green pineapples, tomatoes, “calamansi” or Philippine lime, lemons .
Back in my kitchen here in America, I do not have the backyard fruits I grew up with in the Philippines. But I deal and I make do. Just today, I was on the phone with award-winning cookbook author AMY BESA, owner of PURPLE YAM Restaurant,New York. I told her of my Sinigang dilemnas and the lack of finding the souring agents. Here’s what Amy Besa said : ” Do not use instant Sinigang packets that contain chemicals. Go for the fresh, natural ingredients. Chef Romy (Dorotan) uses rhubarb, lime, lemon to sour our Sinigang.”
Once, at a business dinner, my husband and his colleagues hosted for some Japanese businessmen, we ordered Sinigang as the soup starter. Even if we ordered many other Filipino dishes, it was the Sinigang that caught the Japanese’ attention. They told us that they had a similar sour soup, too. Interestingly, the Japanese as a culture, show appreciation for good food by slurping aloud when sipping soup. You bet there was some good Sinigang slurping that night !
Asian countries have their own versions of the sour soup, too: Burma, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines. From Asia, the sour flavors have made their way to America, Europe and the rest of the world through the food shared at global tables.
I’d like to think that our lives are like the SINIGANG. Similarly in life, in this world, we each have our own differences, cultures, identities. Daily, we go about our ways and blend our individualities with what life has to offer. We take the bitter, the sweet, the sour, the salty, the light, the heavy and take it all in. It is in these unique combinations, contrasts and complexities that we are able to understand how beautiful life is.
SINIGANG, The Philippine Sour Soup
A recipe adapted from my Mom, her Mom, and everyone else in the family before me
1 pound beef short ribs
1/2 pound shrimps, shells intact
1 medium onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
1 whole lemon, sliced with rind
1 whole lime, sliced with rind
1 whole green mango, pitted, sliced
1 giant white radish (daikon in Asian groceries)
1 bunch water spinach (called Kangkong in Asian groceries)
1 bunch yard long green beans (called Sitaw in Asian groceries)
2 pieces Japanese eggplants, sliced
5 cups water
2 Tablespoons fish sauce
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 Tablespoon canola oil
- In a large pot, over medium heat, saute the garlic, onions and tomatoes in the canola oil. Let the onions and tomatoes soften.
- Add the fish sauce. The add the water and sour agents : green mango, lemon, lime.
- While the broth is starting to simmer, add the beef ribs and cook till meat softens. This should take about 40 minutes.
- When beef is tender, add the shrimps, radish, green beans, eggplant. Cook a few minutes more till vegetables are soft.
- Add the water spinach at the last 5 minutes of cooking. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot with jasmine white rice.
COOK’S COMMENTS :Back in the Philippines, the original Sinigang has tamarinds as souring agents. You take 5 green tamarinds, boil them in a little water to soften. Mash the tamarind and get the pulp, then add this to the broth. Some Sinigangs also contain chiles. It is a personal preference. When I put chiles, I make sure to remove it the day after so that the spiciness does not overpower the sour flavors. Serve Sinigang with “patis” or fish sauce on the side for dipping.
AMY BESA, author “Memories of Philippine Kitchens”, owner PURPLE YAM RESTAURANT, NYC