Say it with me, first: sinigang: see-nee-gahng. Still with me? All right. Let’s cook.
Out of the three Filipino dishes I make regularly at home, this dish is my true comfort food. It’s what I make when I am sick, when I have a cold. Or when someone in my house has a cold (hi, Josh!). I remember drinking it in mugs, just the broth, when I was little. I made it tonight because I’m sick, and I needed some warm food. I’m still reeling from last week’s news. And though our daytime temperatures are up in the fifties, it’s not quite warm enough yet where we can say spring is finally here.
How to describe it? Oh, boy. My version is a lemony, tomato-based, onion/garlicky beef stew with a lot of greens. What’s in it? You remember how I was saying that recipes for adobo vary? Well, the recipes vary even more for sinigang. As far as I can tell, here are its basic elements:
• Sour broth (usually, flavored with tamarind or calamansi or sinigang bouillon cubes/mix)
• Vegetables (usually, at least, a water spinach called kangkung, and green beans)
• Meat (usually, fish, or pork, but sometimes beef and chicken)
I remember my grandma’s version with clear broth, and some kind of white fish. My mom’s version was pretty different, so even in one generation, the dish adapted itself to ingredients more readily available in American supermarkets. My mom’s version used lemon juice rather than tamarind for the sour flavor, and she used garlic powder instead of fresh garlic, and she added spinach instead of kangkung (water spinach).
As with so many Filipino dishes, the taste will vary according to the region of the Philippines, as well as individual household preferences and availability of ingredients. To be honest, it varies so widely that I’d be scared to order this dish in a Filipino restaurant because a restaurant version would probably be pretty far from this version. I’ve never tried a mix or powder for the same reason. I’d be hoping against hope for familiarity and comfort, picky eater that I still am.
For years I’ve been playing with the recipe that my mom used, and I think I’ve finally got a version that I can post here. It’s highly adaptable (much like Filipinos themselves), and while some folks may quibble about cultural authenticity, I do love the flexibility. Recently, I asked some of my Pinoy/Pinay friends about a recipe substitution: “Think I’ll get my half-Pinay card revoked for using collard greens in my sinigang? Or will I get bonus points for fusion cuisine?”
And in generous, freespirited, life-loving Pinoy style, here’s what my friends answered:
“J: Filipinos are eminently practical. Use whatever you have on hand, sister!”
“K: Filipinos are known as the great assimilators. Kudos for the fusion!!! I’ll be right over. ”
“A: i don’t think you can get your pinay card revoked. it’s the kind of card that’s irrevocable. the sinigang sounds yummmmm”
And it is. Chicken soup for you, maybe, but sinigang for me, please.
The recipe: Beef sinigang
The number of variations and substitutions here is going to drive a precise home cook crazy. If that’s you, sorry. If you are a cook-by-instinct-and-palate cook, feel free to play a bit.
I am somewhere in between these two extremes of home cooking: I like to read a recipe, and then follow it until I reach an ingredient that I don’t like. Then I substitute or add different elements that sound appealing to me. I usually follow the methods more closely than the ingredients. You should feel free to do the same. If you want something close to what I described above (lemony, tomatoey, garlicky/oniony), you won’t want to substitute or delete any of those ingredients, and you won’t add vinegar to make the soup sour.
If you want to make a vegetarian version, I have heard from one friend that it works, but I haven’t tried it myself. I think that a lot of flavor comes from the meat, though, so if you do not use meat, then you might consider using vegetable broth. Let me know how it turns out?
• About 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1-2 medium onions, roughly chopped into 1/2” pieces
• About 3-4 medium garlic cloves, minced
• About 2 tablespoons of kosher salt (or, salt to taste)
• 1 small can of tomato paste (if you use a no-salt-added paste, add more salt to soup)
• About 2 pounds of stew beef OR top round roast, cut into 1” cubes
• About 3 bunches of greens, chopped up into 1″ pieces. You can use a combination of winter (chard/collards) greens and spring greens (spinach). My mom used spinach. If you use spinach, cut the stems into bite-size pieces. Because they are tender, I prefer spinach and Swiss chard, or a combination. I used Swiss chard because it’s a darker leafy green and therefore more nutritious. You can also, as you saw above, use collard greens, though. Just be sure to cook all greens until they are tender.
• About 2 cups of water to start (then add about 1-1 ½ more later)
• About ¼ cup fresh lemon juice OR calamansi juice or (in a pinch) bottled lemon juice
(Tonight I used Meyer lemon juice and some frozen calamansi juice. It was just right. Meyers and calamansi are sweeter versions of supermarket lemons, though, so if your fresh lemon is quite bitter, you might add just a teaspoon of sugar to correct the bitterness. You want it tangy and sour, but not unattractively bitter. Dare I say, sassy, but not bitchy? And if you use bottled lemon juice, you might need to add a bit more, because it is usually milder than fresh lemon juice.)
1. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions in the olive oil until nearly translucent. Then add the minced garlic and sauté for about a minute. Do not let the onions or garlic burn.
2. Add the tomato paste and salt to the onion-garlic mixture and mix well. Then add the water. Let all of this come to a simmer.
3. At simmering point, add the beef and then more water to cover. Then cover the pot and let the soup simmer for at least an hour to an hour and a half over medium-low heat. Do not boil the soup at high heat, or for a long time, because the beef will become tough and chewy. Use low, moderately slow heat.
4. Next, add the chopped greens. Three bunches looks like a lot, but they will wilt and cook down quite a bit. Simmer the beef and greens for about half an hour more: longer if you are using greens with tougher stems (chard, collards) and less if you are using more delicate greens (spinach).
5. When the greens have cooked down, and the stems are tender, add the lemon juice and stir. Taste and add more water or salt or lemon juice if necessary. Simmer until the beef is fork-tender.
We eat it, as we often do, in a cozy earthenware soup bowl, over a mixture of cooked white rice/quinoa. If you are sick, and don’t quite feel like eating, you can ladle the soup straight into a mug and let the lemony broth soothe your throat.