Cooking ‘sinigang’ abroad
Sinigang is the choose-your-own-adventure of Filipino cuisine. You choose your protein, souring agent, and vegetables depending on your preference and what’s available in your local palengke.
What happens when you don’t have your local palengke with you? Standing in the produce aisle of Carrefour (my local grocery store abroad), my choose-your-own-adventure begins. Only equipped with a 10-pack sinigang mix I stored in my maleta from when I flew away from home, I am facing the difficult task of choosing—more like compromising—ingredients for my sinigang.
The produce aisle is daunting. The vegetables seem so different. Even if I knew the names of the vegetables my mom uses in her sinigang I barely know what they look like or what they translate to in Spanish. I pick out the familiar ingredients. I start with the talong, or to be geographically accurate, aubergine, which is comically huge (think of a young upo). The sinigang has to have some greens. I head to the selection that’s 30 percent actual greens and 70 percent pre-packed salads. From this aisle, I picked out some espinacas. From the corner of my eye, I see the gabi. The internal discussion of whether I should add gabi to the sinigang was short-lived since I am not a fan of gabi.
On my recent visit to Manila, I couldn’t help but notice the rise of fine dining and fusion restaurants. Deconstructed dishes are becoming increasingly popular in the fine dining scene, as chefs experiment with traditional recipes and ingredients to create new and creative takes on classic dishes.
“Sinigang ibérico con aubergine y espinaches españoles”—I imagine the Instagram copy of my sinigang dish would headline. Then comes the plate explanation, a detailed overview of the philosophy inside the dish—like museum labels for paintings. The plate description would read: we present a classic Filipino staple, sinigang. This sour soup is made with a base of tamarind broth granulated from the islands of the Philippines and features pancetta ibérico and European vegetables. The broth is simmered to perfection, creating a tangy and flavorful base complemented by the tender pancetta ibérico, fresh spinach, and aubergines. Our version of sinigang is a celebration of traditional Filipino flavors, reimagined with a contemporary twist inspired by the expansive aisles of a large European grocery store—each shelf a promise of taste and indulgence, a symphony of colors, scents, and flavors that enchants the senses and stirs the heart.
I’ve had enough adventure with the vegetable aisle that I decided to skip the butcher’s corner and go to the pre-cut meats aisle. I do not have the social battery left in me to try and translate words in my head and talk to the butcher and carefully explain to him what cut of meat I want with my limited Spanish vocabulary. I go back to my local palengke in my brain, where you can tell your butcher you want the sinigang cut, and he’d cut it for you without missing a beat. The pre-cut meat only offers me bacon-sliced pork belly, which I took. I figured it’ll add more to the fine dining fusion flair I imagine in my head.
Fine dining has also taken on a more communal approach with the rise of supper clubs and pop-up restaurants. Communal supper clubs are dining experiences where guests gather around a table to share stories, laughter, and, of course, a meal. Communal meals are something the Western world has finally caught up with from us in the Philippines. As far as I’m concerned, these supper clubs are gentrified versions of “boodle fights” and the plain old communal atmosphere around meals in the Filipino household.
Back in my shared flat in Madrid, the sinigang and rice are cooked. “Dinner!” I call out to my flatmates Mara and Christine. Christine, my Filipino roommate, gladly came into the kitchen and fixed herself a meal. Mara, our other flatmate, was hesitant. Christine, knowing better, takes the role of the maître d’ and waitress. She grabs another bowl, fills it with sinigang and rice, and carries it to Mara’s door. Christine knocks on Mara’s door—knowing there isn’t much room for resistance, Mara accepts the bowl. Like a good maître d’, Christine gives a brief dish description of sinigang—minus the nuances of a dish description you would get in a fine-dining restaurant.
Conrad delos Reyes, 27, was born in Isabela but is an adopted child of Baguio. He plays video games or reads a book in a no-frill cafe somewhere during his idle time. Instagram: @potstronaut
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