Friday, April 1, 2011

Food and Oral History: Pork Sinigang or Sinigang na Baboy (Hotpot Pork-Tamarind Soup)

      This is the Filipino dish I ask for every year on my birthday.  There is something about the sour taste of the tamarind mixed with warm pork flavored broth that literally brings me back to my childhood like a time machine.  This soup is also made by other Asian cultures, but slightly different.      

My cousin and her mom
proudly show off their sinigang.

     The word “sinigang” means the process of cooking meals (usually sour) in a clay pot while controlling the ember’s heat by blowing through a pipe of bamboo. There are also different varieties of sinigang and the souring ingredient may also vary.
     The sour is from the tamarind.  The first time I ever ate a tamarind was when my grandmother arrived from the Phillipines.  She brought over a large container of goodies from the ancestral village in Agoo, La Union.  I remember she gave me a yellow cellophane wrapper with several black sticky circular candies inside.  I was six years old and reluctantly placed the object in my mouth and recall the sour taste buds were both shocked and quieted with the sprinklle of salt that coated the candy.  I bit down into the chewy morsel only to find a very hard seed on the inside.  I then proceeded to let the tamarind candy slowly dissolve in my mouth.  Once the seed was cleaned of it's tasty meaty parts a brown, smooth seed revealed itself.  This reminds me a bit like sour patch candy.  Some make sinigang with real tamarind paste, but I have only had the kind in the US where you use the flavor packet.  I can only imagine what sinigang made with real tamrind tastes like.  I wonder if it is more flavorful.

     Pork is the meat of choice in sinigang.  Pork in general was always a favorite meat in my family.  I think it is because my own father has memories of his childhood, standing over the backyard rotisserie, roasting the pig.  I recall a picture of my father with his young brothers slowly cooking the lechon with a beer in one hand, squatting with bright eyes reflected from the fire, tending to the pit.  The custodians of protien were probably rock stars in the village, the same way a pit master is at a rodeo.  My grandfather even had a pig farm.  When you think of the kind of cattle you can raise on the island, there are probably not many choices.  As for how pigs got on to the island, importing a pig on a ship was probably not that difficult.  I doubt the pigs flew there.  Now flash forward, my childhood was filled with images of butchering pigs, goats and chickens in our back yard.  Although this image may traumatize any vegetarian or animal lover, I saw it as a part of life growing up in Houston.  Neighbors always wondered "what was that wierd smell coming from the house?"

     My grandmother always received letters from relatives describing a party's success in the village back home by the number of animals butchered.  My grandmother would read the letters to me when I was a little girl.  "The birthday was a three pig, two goat, five chicken celebration," one letter described.  My own husband reminded me our wedding reception was a two pig, one goat party.

     There was even a buzz in the Filipino Houston community of Anthony Bourdain's comment in his blog titled "Hierarchy of Pork" in the Phillippines, when he stated "the slow roasted lechon I had in Cebu was the best."  The actual show aired him seemingly euphoric.  My husband and friends get tears in their eyes as they even think about cooking sisig, which is another pork delight for beer drinkers.  This mysterious pork nostalgia, in my observation, must bring some succulent memory of flavor.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.  Chinese long green beans.
    Now, the vegetables are also a critical part of the dish.  If you add a vegetable that is too strong, this will change the nature of the soup - unless that is your intention (like pineapple).  My family always uses the long Chinese green beans my dad grew in the back yard.  These are crunchy and flavorful.  Sometimes radishes are thrown in along with leaves of some sort.  Camote tops are ideal, but since these are not readily available in Texas stores or most people do not happen to have them growing in your in their garden (like my dad), then spinach will do.  Eggplant and banana peppers are other vegetables I have also seen tossed into the soup.


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (1/2 inch) piece fresh ginger, chopped
  • 2 plum tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 pound bone-in pork chops
  • 4 cups water, more if needed
  • 1 (1.41 ounce) package tamarind soup base (such as Knorr®)
  • 1/2 pound fresh green beans, trimmed


  1. Heat the vegetable oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onion; cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Season with salt. Stir in the ginger, tomatoes, and pork chops. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Turn the pork occasionally, until browned. Pour in the water and tamarind soup base. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Continue simmering until the pork is tender and cooked through, about 30 minutes. Stir in green beans and cook until tender.
     I have listed a simple recipe of sinigang from the internet, which describes the receipe as I heard it word of mouth.  Again, this was not articulated verbatim - it was sort of rattled off in between conversations in the party without any real precision or exactness.  So I leave that articulation to someone else for the moment.  In hopes you can get a taste of the dish's essence, I can only describe my interpretation via this culmination of experience with this dish.  My only recipe instructions I can give you is something along the lines of, "Gather the ingredients, chop it up, throw them in a large pot and simmer until ready."  That is as good as it gets here.

    My distant cousin and her mother cooked a batch of sinigang to feed us for days at the Merienda.  The back story here is that my distant aunt had not visited my family for quite some time since my Grandmother died.  My Grandmother was her surrogate mother home away from home.  My cousin some how lured her in via cooking the sinigang to come out to spend time with the family.  Although my cousin started cooking the dish, my aunt happily finished while correcting her approach of course.  How very Filipino mommy of her : )  This dish was definitely made and shared with a lot of love.  In the very least, not many words were spoken. Nothing needed to be said.  It was the dish, although disparate in nature throughout the many villages and miles away from home, it brought the families together.

Recipe courtesy of:
Word of mouth version from Lynn Tadeo and Verma Tadeo
Reference definition of sinigang:

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