Soup makes my soul sing. Sharing soup with company is, well, even better. As the winter has slowly crept in I have been dreaming of a time to bring together family stories, warming soups, and many cooks in the kitchen. Last Saturday was the chance to do just that. Thanks to support from the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, I organized a workshop with the theme of "Filipino Soups for the Soul" (The wonderful Jo Boston has a writeup here!)
Ginger-inflected tinola is a soup so familiar to the tongue that I based our class recipe on taste. It belongs to that universal lineage of delicious chicken soups fit for bodies on the mend. And, its even a traditional nourishing food for post-partum mamas. Like many Filipino dishes, tinola is resilient in nature. The vegetables can be switched up depending on what's in season and what's on hand. Folks in the class shared memories of tinola with green papayas, chayote, or even summer squash. We made ours with tender-fleshed upo and the tiniest bok choi.
Waiting for tinola. Lemongrass, green onions, ginger, tatsoi, upo, and bok choi.
The soul of sinigang is its sour broth, whether using sampaloc (tamarind), fruits like guava or green mango, or citrus. Variations include chicken, bangus, and pork, and Jo Boston even mentioned short ribs. I got some salmon inspiration after a trip to the Pacific Northwest and the piers where Filipino Alaskeros began their watery voyage to Alaska's salmon canneries. The legacy of the Alaskeros and its imprints on Filipino/American history led to a unique twist on an essential dish. What was once a "substitute" for tropical fish, and a byproduct of the industry, is now a delicacy in its own right. In fact, my father, who grew up in Bicol province, favors salmon heads to any other fish even though the fish does not even swim in Philippine waters.
Keeping in the spirit of previous OACC culinary workshops, we aimed to blend seasonal produce into traditional recipes, and mix cooking with conversation on adapting foods into kitchens far from the homeland. I felt the question of "authenticity" bubble up as we took on two soups. Some of our soups used local ingredients, like kale and bok choi, but other, far-traveling ingredients such as tamarind pulp were chosen in favor of capturing a traditional flavor. With all the rapid changes that communities - and our environments - now face, how do we keep the soul of those foods alive?
Maybe sinigang captures that question most clearly. For those familiar with this soup, Mama Sita's instant soup base packet is so common that its mention draws a familiar laugh. I shared a story about a balikbayan reality check. A few years back, I visited my mother's province in Pangasinan and trailed the home cooks around hoping to witness real down-home sinigang. We woke in the dark to trek to the market and buy still-flopping fish and the crispest vegetables. But at the moment of truth, when vegetables and fish were to meet broth, it was to my dismay - and laugh - that the familiar package was whipped out and sprinkled in. Here we were, in the heart of the province, and The Packet still made an appearance! I thought we'd be laborously shelling tamarind by hand, but no. (Still, I had to admit the result was delicious).
This is not to say the soup is no longer made in traditional ways - far from it. But it goes to show that the push and pull of instant and processed with slow and homegrown isn't just a question we're facing in the US. We live in a faster-paced time, where globalization and corporations are reshaping relationships to food. As a generation, as individuals, families, and community, though, how do we want to define that relationship? We can all be thankful for folks like Dominic Ainza in SF, whose culinary repertoire includes outside-the-packet sinigang, and Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan, whose Memories of Philippine Kitchens captures and documents living food traditions.
Maybe we can't all take the time to shell tamarinds or have a yard to plant fresh sitaw. But there must be some ways to honor the soul of our foods, no matter where and how we live. I'm thinking of the future, something bigger than any bowl of soup. Because if food traditions become all but disappeared, when those who plant and sow and harvest our foods are displaced, and when the keepers of culinary knowledge are finally lost, we will never know the foods that are at the soul of culture. And with it we will lose those delicious textures - a language, really - telling a story of who we are and who we can be.
More On Tinola:
Belen, Jun. “On Slaughtering Chickens and Making Tinola”
Chang, Momo. “Asian American Mothers and Post-Partum Traditions: A Recipe for Chicken Tinola”
Chang, Momo. “Motherhood Rooted.”
More On Sinigang:
Salaysay, Cynthia. “Singing the Praises of Sinigang”
Fernandez, Doreen. “Culture Ingested: Notes on the Indigenization of Filipino Food”
Gapultos, Marvin. “An Interview with Claude Tayag.”