Where I grew up we had three tamarind trees within the vicinity, which meant making our beloved comforting sinigang entailed crossing fences, braving tall grasses and avoiding harmless hissing bubuli (sand lizard) just to get the sour fruit straight from the tree.
My father who refuses to uses powdered mixes would then wash them and cook them—shell included—along with the meat as it tenderizes. Once soft to his liking, he would take them out with a ladle and in that same scoop proceed to mash them to release its sour flavor. That’s how for the longest time we’ve been preparing sinigang, at least until before one of the trees has been cut down to give way to a house, the other one became barren, and the last one inaccessible because of a land dispute.
Other times, depending on the meat used for this hearty soup, he’d ask me to get panukang bayabas (overripe guava) for fish from our neighbor, although I didn’t really appreciate its taste and the seeds that hinder my every bite until I was old enough.
He’s quite the drinker, my dad, so he would occasionally have his friends over at our house over bottles of cheap beer and his favorite pulutan, sinampalukang paa’t ulo ng manok prepared not with the tamarind fruit itself but with its young leaves, talbos, as we call it. It’s slightly lighter in color than mature ones but packs a punch unlike the sour fruit but if used in ample amounts is enough to make the cook’s face quiver after a quick taste or tikim.
Abysmal poverty of the mind
All those stories are just to say we make do with what we have within our reach, a very Filipino trait if not human, according to food writer Doreen Fernandez, who believed we relied solely upon the “biyaya ng lupa” or whatever the land gives us. “Sour flavorings abound in leaf, fruit, and bole to temper, mediate, accompany, contrast, provide different dimensions to the dishes that we liked sour,” she wrote going beyond the acidic requirements of just sinigang but also many other Filipino cuisine staples like paksiw, adobo, and kinilaw.
And boy, do our lands have lots to offer, which would explain why across the archipelago there are about as many ways to cook the unofficial national dish as there are as many islands. Fernandez argued that resorting to just tomatoes or calamansi is “abysmal poverty of mind.”
All there is left to do is to appropriate each fruit, leaf, and whatnot to corresponding meat. Fernandez suggested using leaves for chicken, tart and fleshy fruits for seafood, and fruits with strong flavor such as tamarind or batwan for meats like beef and pork.
As children, we learned of the word alibangbang through the nursery rhyme “Sitsiritsit Alibangbang.” The song is perhaps sung to make kids less squeamish at the sight of bugs. Was it entirely effective? Of course not. In another part of the wild, the alibangbang flies only when the wind blows and not when it pleases. This other alibangbang (Bauhinia malabarica) is a tree whose leaves are shaped like the wings of a moth.
In history, the mildly tangy leaves of roadside alibangbang trees sustained those who walked the Death March from Bataan to Pampanga. The alibangbang tree may seem prevalent in the city, but before you pick some leaves from its droopy branches, be warned that not all moth-like leaves are sour. What has been cultivated as roadside trees in the city are exotic Bauhinia sp. like Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia blakeana, which is Hong Kong’s national flower. For the untrained eye, it might be difficult to differentiate the indigenous alibangbang from the non-native butterfly tree. The trick is to look at its flowers. Unlike the orchid-like purple flowers of other Bauhinia sp., the native alibangbang carries smaller white flowers in clusters. And what if the tree is not in flower? It doesn’t hurt to give one leaf a taste. It should be mildly tangy.
Sinigang na Baboy sa dahon ng Alibangbang
1 pc. red onion, quarted
5 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄2 kg pork liempo, cut in large cubes
10-12 pcs. alibangbang leaves
½ cup gabi
1⁄2 cup radish
1⁄2 cup okra
4 tbsp. fish sauce
1⁄4 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. oil
1. Boil water in a deep pot, then add pork, onion, tomatoes, and gabi. Let it cook for about 30 minutes. Season with salt and fish sauce.
2. Once meat is tender, add the alibangbang leaves. Add the rest of the vegetables except for the okra and kangkong. Let it cook for another 15-20 mins.
3. Switch off fire and add the okra and kangkong. Adjust to taste. Serve.
When hanging at the storefront in your local market, a bunch of rattan fruits (Calamus sp.) looks like a holiday ornament much like pinecones. And who wouldn’t agree? Locally known as yantok (limuran, littuko, among other names in other places), the fruit with snake-like outer shell comes from a climbing palm whose fibers are prized in furniture design, after all. In the kitchen, rattan has a rightful place not as wicker basket nor an ornamental fruit. What its beautiful skin hides is an extremely sour pulp. If you don’t mind puckering, you can eat the fruit raw. But if you’d rather dilute it and turn it into a hearty soup, few pieces of mashed rattan fruit are potent for a sour soup.
Manok na Sinigang sa Rattan
1 whole red onion, quartered
2 medium tomatoes, quartered
1 kg chicken thigh
1 cup rattan fruit, peeled
Salt to taste
1-2 pcs. siling haba
1. Boil pot full of water with the chicken, tomatoes, and onions.
2. Simmer in medium heat for 20 mins.
3. Add rattan fruit into the broth. Cook for another 20 mins to soften the pulp before crushing it for extra flavor.
4. Simmer for 10 more minutes and then switch off the fire. Add the kangkong and green chili. Serve in a bowl.
Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ decision to redesign all new Philippine coins into silver ones has caused confusion among the public. What is most likeable about these new coins are the native flowers featured on the wrong side of each coin: kapa-kapa for 10 pesos, tayabak for five pesos, waling-waling for one peso, and katmon for 25 cents.
Katmon (Dillenia philippinensis), however, isn’t only known for its ornamental flower. The evergreen tree itself is an ideal specimen for urban landscapes because of its compact structure and typhoon resistance. Without the show of white flowers, the tree remains stunning with its glossy serrated leaves. The exquisite blooms appear multiple times a year, but they only last a day. Its white petals wilt, and the sepals envelop the remaining parts of the flower until the whole thing becomes a fruit the size of a golf ball or even a tennis ball.
Peel off its green leathery skin to reveal a curious whirling arrangement of its segments. The fruit is often referred to as the alien fruit because of this odd appearance. But this is no strange fruit.
Sinigang na Salmon sa Katmon
800 g salmon head
4 cups water
2 tbsp. fish sauce
8 pcs. or more of katmon, peeled and quartered
1 pc. white onion, quartered
2 pcs. tomatoes, quartered
1. Over medium heat, sauté the salmon head with onions, tomatoes, and katmon until it starts to soften. This will take about 5-7 minutes.
2. Add fish sauce and water and let it boil for 15 minutes.
3. Alternatively, you could just throw in the fish, with onions, tomatoes, and katmon in boiling water and cook for 15 minutes.
3. Either way, add the vegetables and let it boil for another half minute.
4. Serve in a large bowl.
Special thanks to the Ateneo Wild Project and San Jose Seminary
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