The Secrets To Real Sinigang

Sinigang na hipon


LIKE most Filipinos, I can eat sinigang daily for a month and not get tired of it, because sinigang is not one specific dish but a method of stewing fish, prawns, chicken, beef or pork in a broth soured by fresh fruit and enriched with a wide variety of vegetables.

Contrary to popular belief and practice, sinigang is not a free-for-all hodgepodge of anything available. There are strict rules still followed by traditional home cooks and by those of us lucky enough to have trained in the kitchen with our grandparents, in the good old days before the advent of instant mixes.

START WITH THE BROTH – Whenever possible, I save the hugas-bigas (water from the second rinsing of rice) for use in fish sinigang. The rinse water, cloudy with starch from the grains’ surface, provides for a thicker, richer broth; there’s added benefits from the nutrients washed off the rice.
Rice water is not as necessary for any meat sinigang, as animal gelatin dissolves and thickens the broth during the long simmering process.

– Onions and tomatoes are the basic ingredients present in all sinigang variants, and there are secrets to releasing their flavors. Lola taught me to slice onions and very ripe tomatoes and mash them well in a bowl with coarse salt before adding the whole thing into the pot of broth.

PAMPA-ASIM – The heart and soul of sinigang is the souring agent that gives the dish its identifying tart flavor. In Tagalog homes, these are: talbos ng sampalok (young tamarind leaves), green tamarind fruit, ripe but sour tamarind fruit, green mango, ripe guava and kamias (fresh or dried).
Calamansi is hardly used for sinigang, but reserved for fish pinangat. One reason is the bitter flavor from the oils of the skin, the seeds and the pith (the white layer between the skin and the flesh.

Meats are cooked with the young leaves, green and ripe fruit of tamarind; another meat souring agent is fruit or green mango; kamias is considered too mild for meats and is used mainly for fish and shrimps, just like ripe guava.

With the exception of tamarind leaves, sinigang souring agents are normally boiled in the broth until soft, retrieved and mashed in a bowl with more broth, then returned to the pot.

FRUGAL SHORTCUTS – When tamarind fruit, kamias and green mango are in season, I boil and mash them, remove sediments with a sieve, and freeze the gooey liquid in ice trays. Once frozen, the sour cubes are transferred to ziplock bags for use whenever I make sinigang.

Two other frozen sinigang shortcuts are: mashed, sliced onions and ripe tomatoes and the versatile ginisa mix of sautéed garlic, onions and tomatoes.

ADDING VEGGIES – When making fish or shrimp sinigang, the vegetables to add to the simmering broth (before the fish and souring agent but after the mashed onion-tomato mix) are: eggplant, long beans (sitaw), okra, kangkong (or green camote tops) and long green peppers.

For meat sinigang, the vegetables are sitaw, eggplants, okra, kangkong, whole young sweet bell peppers and long green hot peppers. Exclusively for meat are tender young knobs of elephant ear yams called Gabing Anak because they sprout like oversized blisters on the main root that is, in turn, affectionately called Gabing Ina.

When in season, farmers add squash shoots and the white flowers of the Katuray tree to any sinigang.

There is a formula for timing when the vegetables are added, because acid from the souring agent makes it difficult to properly cook eggplants, long beans, gabi and okra. To solve this, some cooks pre-cook these vegetables in the sinigang broth before the sour stuff is mixed in, take the veggies out and return the veggies to the pot at serving time.

GINGER YES OR NO – Ginger is one ingredient that is the object of debate as far as sinigang is concerned. Most cooks agree that ginger is a must for fish sinigang, and almost all agree that Sinampalukang Manok (Chicken Sinigang in Tamarind Leaves) would taste different without ginger.

BOILED OR SAUTEED MISO – Very few young cooks know that miso should be sautéed in garlic, onions, ginger and tomato; they instead prefer the lazy method of adding everything to boiling water. They do not realize that by doing this, they omit the crucial step which provides depth of flavor and the smoky richness of vegetables caramelized slowly in hot oil.

No matter how miso is incorporated into the stew, it is not a souring agent and therefore needs either kamias, tamarind or mango to round up the sinigang’s complex blend of flavors. By the way, there are three kinds of miso in the public market: beige, yellow and light brown with chocolate-hued.

Mustard leaves (dahon ng mustasa) are a must to complete the sinigang sa miso, although Tagalog pechay is an acceptable substitute.

Purists insist that only freshwater fish like Kanduli (white lake catfish) and bangus should be cooked in miso. We have, however, found the recipe excellent for heads and tails of imported pink salmon, local tuna and tanigue (Spanish mackerel).

REAL SINAMPALUKAN – Any Caviteno knows that Sinampalukan means only one thing: chicken, preferably native, sautéed in garlic, onions, tomatoes, ginger and minced young tamarind leaves then simmered in broth until tender. Tamarind flowers are never used; they leave a pakla taste that does not translate to English. Sinampalukan often requires additional souring from the boiled pulp of green mango or young tamarind fruit.

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