for italians, it’s pasta sauce. for jews, it’s matzo ball. for southerners and sports fans, it’s chili. and for filipinos, it’s sinagang (pronounced “sin-ee-gung”), a sour tamarind-based soup that is the country’s quintessential comfort food. what is it about these dishes, cooked in a pot, bubbling on the stovetop, that makes us swoon? why, when we bite into them, do we experience so much more than mere flavors and textures, but also warmth, togetherness, security, sustenance—the visceral, irresistible taste of home?
recently i went on a trip to LA to visit family. much like the midwest, they’ve been going through a nasty heat wave, and our first few days there were scorchers. to deal with the blistering temperatures, we consumed lots of salads, fresh fruit, coconut water, pinkberry, and more than a few glasses of sauvignon blanc.
yet when my parents arrived, the culinary conversation took a 180 degree turn. they gathered their luggage from the car, flung open the door, and my son, bursting with anticipation, ran to my dad. he stretched out his arms and squeezed.
“lolo [a term that means ‘grandpa’ in filipino]! can you please make sinagang?!”
there, in the 110-degree, sweat-inducing oven that was the san fernando valley, my son was begging for a bowl of hot soup.
and, as scalding as we were, we jumped right on the bandwagon. it was no-brainer. “fire it up, dad! we went to the farmers market and got all the ingredients. all you need to do is cook it!”
you might think it cruel that the poor guy, now in his 70s, flew 4.5 hours to get here to be with his family, only to be told he had to step on over to the kitchen to start cooking…but you’d be wrong. dad is “the man” in the kitchen and there is no place he’d rather be than with his family stirring up a big piping pot of sinigang.
it’s a “kitchen-sink” kind of soup, chock full of ingredients and simple to prepare; yet for some reason it never quite tastes the same as when dad makes it. he starts by trimming the meat—usually short ribs but sometimes oxtail or chuck. then he slices the vegetables: chinese eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, green beans, okra, parsnips and a bit of ginger. he throws it all into the pot (the biggest one he can find) and sprinkles in the knorr sinigang seasoning, which gives it a delicious sour flavor similar to thai tom yum soup. for more nuance (and also to preserve his status as the best sinigang maker in our family), he always throws in a couple extra mystery ingredients at the end when we’re not looking: a squeeze of calamansi, filipino lime, to infuse a hint of acidity, a dash of patis (fish sauce) for a bit more saltiness. he brings it all to a boil, occasionally lifting up the lid to make sure every veggie and piece of meat soaks up the flavor. delicious steam rises into the air. and then he drops it down to a simmer.
flavors are extracted. aromas start to permeate. we all breathe in deeply…love is in the air.
we love it. and we love him. and all of that love goes straight into the pot…and down into our bellies. we sit together at the table, and for a rare few minutes in our boisterous household, it’s quiet—save for the clinking of spoons and forks as we shovel in the “sabaw” or broth-soaked rice and fight for the last pieces of broccoli. the table inevitably erupts into giggles when my brother, as he has been doing since we were little kids, gets up for a third plate of rice and scrapes the bottom of the pot for any remaining morsels.
no matter what it’s called, this kind of meal is so much more than food—it’s love in a pot. it’s rituals passed on from generation to generation. like chicken soup for the soul, it’s healing. it’s warmth. it’s sustenance. it’s comfort and connectedness. it’s your history. your family. it’s home.