I’m sorry, this soup recipe contains neither pumpkin nor butternut squash. It’s apparently fall but I live in sunny southern California so I’m not going to pretend that it’s anything but eternally summer in these parts. In the past few weeks I've inexplicably come down with three different illnesses, in between which I went to New York for the Saveur Blog Awards, and followed that up with a four day work trip with before-dawn departures. New York is your loud, wild, and colorful friend that you're glad to have over yet at the same time utterly relieved when they go home. It left me drained, and in desperate need of some comfort food.
When the smell of the sour tamarind and fish sauce wafted through the house growing up, I can't lie and tell you I felt excitement at the thought of it. Couldn't we just order a Dominos pizza, make neon orange mac and cheese from the box, or whatever my white friends were having for dinner? And yet, some 20 odd years later, out of town and sick with no kitchen in sight I could feel my mouth watering at the thought of a soup I had dreaded so much as a child. Tastebud memories are funny like that, one single taste of something has the power to bring memories rushing back and seeking comfort in nostalgic dishes. I suppose not much has changed, now I'm the food blogger in the internet lunch room, off in the corner with her strong smelling tamarind and fish soup recipe while everyone else is making pumpkin bisque. Sometimes comfort food means creamy bacon mashed potatoes and sometimes it is a memory from long ago.
Enter Sinigang- a pungent and acidic tamarind soup that is the very definition of Filipino comfort food, and the type of soup you would expect from a place that is overbearingly hot and humid for most of the year. It is clear, light, refreshing, and full of vegetables. Sinigang can be made with a number of different proteins as well as souring agents, and preferences vary depending on the region of the Philippines. The exact combination of souring agent and protein is not important so much as achieving the right balance of sour and salt is. The most typical souring agent is Tamarind juice, but to be honest the average Filipino-American family relies on the Knorr or Mama Sita’s Tamarind soup mix packets. While in the Philippines a few years ago, I saw many commercials for different brands of powdered Singing mix in between the melodramatic soap operas my Grandma watched every day. My favorite involved schoolchildren dancing through the streets with their bowls of Singing splashing around before taking a sip of it in unison and dramatically puckering their faces. That right there is the most important part- regardless if you make it from the packet or from scratch- the first sip of that sharp and tart broth should pucker up your entire face.
Because of the whole packet thing, I thought this would be a complicated soup to make when it actually isn’t. I am not sure why this shortcut became the go-to in most filipino-american households for making a dish that rivals Adobo for it’s spot as the National Dish of the Philippines. Possibly the most problematic part might be finding fresh tamarind, as it is not something that is typically available in your neighborhood grocery store. If you have access to an Asian or Latin grocery store, you should be able to find it. Other souring agents that can be used are limes, calamansi juice (though I feel as though if you’re able to get your hands on this you could also do the same for tamarind), lemon juice, guava, and unripe mango. Other than that it is very simple as all soups are. Throw stuff in pot. Cook. As far as proteins go, Pork is the most common protein when it comes to Sinigang, but fish and prawns are also a popular choice. Tangy acidic broths tend to complement seafood very well, so for this recipe I used fish. I added miso since during my first try of making this, the broth lacked the depth of flavor you would get if making it with pork, which gets added in the beginning of the cooking process and gives it that umami flavor. If you have a sour tooth, this is the broth for you.
Sinigang // Filipino Tamarind Soup
5 cups of rice washing water
3 cups Tamarind broth,or souring agent of your choosing
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 tomatoes, quartered
1 bunch baby bok choy
1 daikon radish, peeled and thinly sliced
1 bunch long green beans (sitaw) cut to 3 inch pieces, or regular green beans if you can’t get sitaw
1 clove garlic, minced
2 lb Tilapia, Salmon, or any firm white fish, deboned and cut into medium sized cubes
2 tbsp. fish sauce
2 tbsp. white miso
Salt and pepper, to taste
White rice, for serving
1. To make the tamarind juice, peel and de-stem 10 tamarind pods and boil them for 30 minutes in 8 cups of water. Remove tamarind from juice, and mash the flesh through a sieve with a fork. Run the warm juice through the sieve a few times, to extract as much flavor as possible.
2. As this dish is typically served with rice, before starting on your Sinigang you are going to want to make your rice, because rice washing water is exactly what it sounds like- water that comes from rinsing the rice. After you have rinsed the rice once, reserve the water from the second and third washings for your SInigang broth, making sure you have 5 cups set aside.
3. In a large pot, saute onions and garlic in 1 tsp. oil, 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper, and 2 tbsp. miso until onions are translucent and garlic is fragrant.
4. Add tamarind broth, rice washing water, fish sauce, and bring to a boil
5. The green beans, or sitaw, will take the longest to cook so those go in the broth first.
6. Once the beans have slightly softened (about 5 minutes) the tomatoes, daikon radish, bok choy, and fish can go in.
7. Simmer just until fish is cooked through and the flesh is no longer translucent, and the bok choy is soft. If overcooked the vegetables will turn mushy and brown so really keep an eye on it.
8. Taste your broth and add more salt and pepper to your liking. Different brands of fish sauce can have wildly varying amounts of salt so it is one of those dishes where you have to season as you go.
9. Serve with white jasmine rice. OPTIONAL: a side of fish sauce mixed with 1 clove of minced garlic, for those fish sauce and garlic lovers out there.