A short quiz. Which Asian countries do these dishes and ingredients bring to mind?
1) Raw fish.
3) Barbequed/roasted pork.
4) Sour (and sometimes spicy) soup.
I'm betting that, unless you're Filipino or have spent a lot of time in the Philippines, the island nation didn't cross your mind.
Raw fish - Japan, right? Tahiti, if you want to venture into the South Pacific. But why not the Philippines? Filipinos have been eating kinilaw, a ceviche-like dish of raw fish or meat, 'cooked' in a souring agent such as vinegar or kalamansi juice,for eons. Kinilaw has as many variations as there are Philippine regions and provinces and, probably, cooks. The few we sampled were, in a word, sublime.
Now, cheese. China/Tibet, perhaps, or Bhutan (yak cheese). Or maybe fermented tofu (aka 'Chinese cheese') came to mind. But what about what must be the tastiest Asian cheese of all: Philippine kesong puti
h (from 'queso', the Spanish word for cheese; 'putih' means 'white' in both Tagalog and Malaysian), made from fresh carabao milk. We encountered this delicacy in almost every market we visited. It can be crumbly or smooth as satin, sharply salty or mild, milky, and mozzarella-like, or tangy in a telemne sort of way. It's often sold in small flattish slabs, wrapped in banana leaf. And speaking from experience, it's equally fine baked into a bibingka (a sort of rice flour pancake) or drizzled with olive oil.
Moving along ... bbq'd or roasted pig. Malaysian readers will instantly think of home; others might think Guangzhou, Thailand (Trang, especially), Singapore. Yet I'm not sure we've ever, in all our Asian travels, encountered as fervent a love for all things porcine as we did in Manila, where lechon (whole, spit-roasted pig) has a firm grip on seemingly every local's heart. In some regions of the Philippines pig is roasted plain, while in others its body cavity is stuffed with lemongrass and herbs before it takes a turn over the fire. If you're market-hopping in Manila count on coming face to face with one, two, or more glistening, golden carcasses on any given day.
Finally, sour (and maybe spicy) soup. This is an easy one. Look north, to China's Sichuan province, home of suan la tang (hot and sour soup). Then south, to Thailand, for tom yam gong - hot and sour shrimp soup (not to mention tom kha muu, sour pork leg soup). Cambodia and Lao boast samlor, and Vietnam's chua, though sweet, is sometimes tinged with tang. Here in Malaysia we pucker up to laksa assam ('assam' means 'sour'), and in just about any Indonesian town you can find someone to serve you sayur asam, a soup-like dish of mixed vegetables soured with tamarind.
But why not sinigang?
Sinigang: the Philippine sour soup, described by the late, great Filipino academic and food writer Doreen Fernandez as 'the most representative of Filipino taste.' Sour, a basic element of the Filipino palate, is perfectly expressed in this dish of meat or chicken or seafood combined with any of a mindboggling variety of vegetables (leaves especially) in a broth tangy from one or a number of ingredients like: sampalok (tamarind), kalamansi lime juice, kamias (belimbi), tomato, guava, vinegar (palm or coconut or cane), the leaves of the alibangbang tree, .... the list goes on. Fresh green chilies, chopped or left whole, often find their way into the pot too.
Sinigang is easy to love. It hits the gullet head-on, satisfying with the flavor of its main protein ingredient and titillating with its piquancy. With each spoonful of sinigang the appetite is at once sated and stoked. Eaten with rice, sinigang is a meal in itself. We found it everywhere, from market eateries to streetside shops offering home cooking at rockbottom prices to proper restaurants with aircon and cloth napkins on the tables.
So - why is this dish, with a flavor profile easily as accessible to the Western palate as tom yum gong and Chinese hot and sour soup, so little known outside the Philippines? And why, for that matter, is the Philippines, a nation with a cuisine as rich and complex and regionally varied as any in Asia, so off the map of traveling food lovers?
(Thanks, Marc, for pointing me to Doreen Fernandez's essay 'Why Sinigang?' which, obviously, inspired this post.)
Google sinigang and a gzillion recipes will pop up. This one is adapted, with what I happened to have on hand, from Memories of the Philippine Kitchen (substitute meat for the fish, or use fillets and ready-made fish stock). I made it Monday, less than 24 hours after returning from Manila, when I suddenly found myself pining for a taste of the Philippines. The cuisine gets under your skin that way. I make no claim to authenticity , but it satisfied the urge. For now.
1 large red snapper, filleted and head, tail and bones reserved
tail, head and bones from the snapper
green part of 3 leeks, cut into large pieces
golfball+-sized chunk of tamarind pulp (about 2 ounces), soaked in 1/2 cup hot water for 30 minutes
5 unripe tomatoes, chopped
1 small daikon radish, cut into thick slices
white part of 3 leeks, thinly slices
2 ripe tomatoes, quartered
2 fresh green chilies - left whole or sliced, depending on your tolerance for heat
1/4 cup fish sauce (Philippine preferred)
1/2-1 bunch water spinach (morning glory, phak beung) cut into 3-to-4-inch pieces
kalamansi juice, to taste (lime, if kalamansi not available)
1. Combine fish bones and head/tail, leek greens, tamarind+water, and chopped tomatoes etc. with 9 cups water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes. Skim the foam occasionally. The goal here is a relatively clear stock. Strain and return the broth to the pot.
2. Add daikon, leeks, chilies, and tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the fillets and water spinach and simmer another couple minutes. Add the fish sauce, starting with one HALF of the 1/4 cup, and taste for salt. Add more fish sauce if desired. Taste and add additional souring agent, if necessary, before serving with rice and, if you like, other dishes.