By Sol Vanzi
Sinigang is, hands down, the most popular savory broth in the Philippines. It is served and eaten by Christians, Muslims, meat eaters, and vegetarians. But it is difficult to describe sinigang to foreigners who ask if it is a soup, a stew, or a main course. Is it beef, pork, chicken, seafood, or vegetables? It is all of the above.
Sinigang is not one recipe with a specific list of ingredients, but a manner of cooking ingredients in a broth flavored predominantly by onions, tomatoes, and sour tropical fruits and leaves.
Among the most popular sinigang souring agents are unripe tamarind, ripe tamarind, tamarind young leaves, alagaw leaves, alibangbang leaves, guava, green mango, kamias, santol, unripe pineapple, batuan fruit.
The ingredients that make for authentic sinigang are not always available, forcing majority of cooks to use sinigang mixes. The biggest mistake is to follow package instructions that say “add all ingredients to water and boil until done.”
I myself depend on all-natural Mama Sita’s sinigang mixes, especially when souring fruits are not in season. By following Lola’s rules, my made-with-mix sinigang always tastes genuinely made-from-scratch.
My Cavite kin have very strict sinigang rules, which bar the inclusion of kamias and guava with meat, restricting their use to fish and seafood sinigang. Kamias and guava are considered too tame for the strong taste of meat.
Lola was my first, and best, food instructor. She had many food guidelines, not the least of which is cutting vegetables in specific ways for particular dishes. For example, eggplants were sliced diagonally for sinigang, but left in big chunks for kare-kare. Okra was left whole to keep the broth from getting slimy.
Freshwater catfish (hito) was never cooked without fresh turmeric (luyang dilaw), except when broiled and fried. Only freshwater fish were added to sinigang with guavas.
Sting ray (pagi), shark (pating), and eel (igat) were always cooked with alagaw leaves and fresh ginger to reduce fishiness. Meat sinigang used tamarind and green mango, never kamias, guava, or miso.
This is a very special sinigang, which can only be prepared a few days a year when the tamarind tree is covered with very young leaves (talbos) the color of spring.
Discard flowers (they are mapakla), mature leaves, and tough stems. Chop tender young leaves finely and mash with coarse salt, sliced onions, and tomatoes. Fry crushed garlic and smashed ginger in a little vegetable oil until light brown. Add tamarind-tomato mixture and sauté until tender and oil separates.
Stir in chicken pieces, turn heat up high, and stir-fry until meat turns opaque. Slowly add enough water just to level with the meat. Cover and simmer slowly until meat is tender. This is when one may add vegetables.
Taste for sourness. At this point, you may add boiled tamarind juice, grated green mango or any souring agent, as tamarind leaves are sometimes not sour enough. Adjust for salt. Serve with patis or sautéed bagoong.
MASHED RIPE TOMATOES
Meat and poultry sinigang was never just boiled, but started with a base of sautéed garlic, onions, ginger and lots of very ripe tomatoes in which the meat was sautéed in a process my grandma called sangkutsa.
The same rule applied to sinigang sa miso, which never used meat, just fish. Sinigang sa miso required whole mustard leaves as main vegetable, along with sliced radish.
But the most important rules concern a major ingredient: tomatoes. They have to be very ripe, with not a hint of green. They are sliced, mixed with sliced onions, sprinkled with very coarse aged sea salt, and mashed until the juices run out. Then they are added to the pot to either boil or sauté with the rest of the ingredients.
Try these rules at home and you will taste a world of difference, even when you are forced to use sinigang mixes. And for variety, try the new Mama Sita’s sinigang mixes: batuan paste, guava paste, sampalok paste, all available at the Mama Sita pop-up store within the new Greenhills Shopping Center.