Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother's Day: Sinigang sa Sampalok

I remember Sinigang being a favorite dish in my family.  Now saying that, allow me to offer the disclaimer that while I would eat it, it would have to be over copious amounts of steamed rice.  As a child, and even as a young adult, the sourness of it did not click with my palate and I would eat it more as a side dish in very conscious moderation, picking out the radishes.  In contrast, both my mother and grandmother would go to town, happily eating any and all of my leftovers.  This was comfort food for them.  

And so, today, on Mother's Day, which also happens to coincide with the 2nd anniversary of my grandmother's passing, I offer this recipe in their honor.

A traditional Filipino dish, the trademark tartness comes from the acidulous pulp of tamarind (sampalok in Tagalog), a tropical fruit that grows in large pods from tall, willowy trees.  In the Philippines, I noticed it as a staple on every restaurant menu and quite often sold as street food.  And amidst the heat and humidity, it now makes total sense to me, as the sometimes jarring mouth-puckering flavor is actually quite cooling.  When my grandmother would have it, she would carefully spoon out the vegetables and meat from the soup and cascade them over her bowl of white rice.  Then, she would use a ladle to scoop just the sabaw (Tagalog for "broth") into a mug to have alongside her meal.  My mother would use a larger bowl and completely submerge her rice in the steaming soup, adding a healthy sprinkling of fish sauce.

Organic tamarind paste:  Black like molasses.

And now, at this point in my taste buds' evolution, I finally find myself relating to their fondness for this dish.  It satisfies in a way that nearly defies words.  And even if I did have them, it is still a tall order to convince someone that a sour soup (that is worlds apart from hot & sour soup) tastes so wonderful.  And yet it does.

But don't take my word, my mother's word, or my grandmother's word for it.  Try it for yourself and see.

Vegetable Stew in Tamarind Broth (Sinigang sa Sampalok)
Gluten-Free & Vegan

Active Prep Time:  5-10 minutes
Inactive Prep Time:  none
Cooking Time:  25-30 minutes
Yield:  6 servings

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 c onion, diced
1/3 c tomato, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 c sweet potato, diced
1/2 c daikon radish, sliced
1/3 c carrot, chopped
1/3 c baby bok choy stem, chopped

8 c warm vegetable stock or filtered water
3 tablespoons tamarind paste

1-2 c baby bok choy leaves, chopped

salt, to taste
chopped scallions, to garnish

What you'll need:  Large saucepan or Dutch oven, slotted spoon, ladle

1.  Heat oil over medium heat.  Saute onions first for about 1 to 2 minutes to encourage their natural sweetness and then add the remaining vegetables in the order listed, separating each by about 20-30 seconds.  
2.  When the combination is just beginning to sweat (you'll notice the sweet potato and daikon beginning to become translucent), add stock and tamarind paste.  Many recipes will call for just 2 tablespoons with this amount of liquid, but I found that that did not inspire nearly enough pucker.  Feel free to start with 2 and then add an additional tablespoon if you feel the same way.
3.  Maintain a quiet, but active simmer for 20-25 minutes, reducing the heat to medium low if need be.
4.  Add bok choy leaves at the end, removing from heat and allowing them to gently wilt in the hot broth.  Salt to taste, if desired.  I only used about a teaspoon for this entire batch.
5.  Garnish with scallions before serving.

While usually served with steamed rice, you can also opt for quinoa, buckwheat, or another grain of choice.  I find it to be more than sufficient on its own, savoring a large steaming bowl with its multitude of textures and the contrast of "sweet" ingredients like sweet potato, carrot, tomato, and onion against the backdrop of rich, tangy tamarind broth.  And if the ingredients listed in this recipe are not readily available or you'd like to use different vegetables altogether, feel free to make it your own.  Starting from the basic ratio of liquid to tamarind paste, the sky is truly the limit.

Cosmopolitan Church in Manila: 10/14/2012

As I said earlier, this post is in honor of Mother's Day and the 2nd anniversary of my Lola Frances' passing.  I am deeply, deeply indebted to both of these women, as the man I am today and the life I am living is due in major part to them.  Their mentorship, unconditional support, inspiration of faith, generosity of love, kindness, and doses of reality when needed, their leadership by example - I carry all of it with me.  And though my Lola is no longer with us physically, she remains in spirit and in my heart just as vibrant, elegant, and quick-witted as ever.  And I seek, every day, to do the good work that she always knew that I would do.

Please enjoy this recipe and have beautiful Mother's Day.  May it be filled with extraordinary feats of love and gratitude.

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