When a bowl of soup is the quickest way home
When I was still in college, my father would often fly to the U.S. from the Philippines to help me move into my new apartment. In the few days we had together, we would spend all of our time moving and unpacking boxes, buying groceries, and finding small ways to make a strange new place feel like home. The fact that I had moved to Boston from the Philippines years ago made this process no less important or necessary. If anything, having him there at the beginning of each year was a nourishment in itself-- a fortification against the next year of living halfway around the world from where I grew up, and where all of my family and friends still lived.
It became our ritual to cook chicken Adobo on the last night of his visit-- a Filipino stew of soy sauce, vinegar, and of course, lots and lots of garlic. We would make a huge batch and eat none of it. Instead, it would go straight into the freezer, where it would keep for months, ready to be defrosted in a time of need. Hangovers, breakups, exam week-- there was nothing Adobo could not fix.
When I finally moved into a place with a working stove, I desired, for the first time, to learn how to make even more of the foods of my childhood. Sinigang, of course, was the first on my list. But I realized that, though this was a dish that I had eaten roughly twice a week until the age of seventeen, I knew little about how it was actually made.
At first glance, the contents of a bowl of Sinigang soup are straightforward enough-- tomato, onion, and kangkong (also known as Chinese spinach or morning glory) were standard; sometimes taro, okra, eggplant or radish are also thrown into the mix. The protein, too, can be whatever you wanted it to be, though milkfish and pork have always been my favorites.
But it was the broth itself, the very source of Sinigang’s flavor, that would prove to be the most troublesome as I began thinking about how to actually make it myself. Spicy, salty, and very sour, I soon learned that in the Philippines, the flavors of Sinigang were easily found at the grocery store in the form of a packet of spice and tamarind concentrate. And yet, no matter how many Star Markets, Whole Foods, or Trader Joe’s I searched, it seemed that no such thing existed in America (or at least, the T-accessible parts of the Greater Boston area). Even Asian grocery stores were scoured, only to be found wanting. Finally, I realized that if I wanted Sinigang, I would have to get creative. If no tamarind concentrate powder existed, then I would have to make it myself.
Luckily, tamarind fruit turned out to be something which Whole Foods did have. I ended up finding a recipe online to guide me through the process of turning the tamarind into a paste-- a process which no one in my family could have known, because of course, they never needed to. Before I could even get started on the soup, the tamarind had to be boiled, peeled, de-seeded, and mashed. And when the Sinigang was done, after it had been simmering on the stove for an hour, poured over hot white rice, and sampled; it still tasted off, a little too sweet, and not quite sour enough.
But that wasn’t the only thing which made my first attempt less-than-satisfying. Kangkong was another ingredient that seemed simply non-existent in America. (It was only after H-Mart opened in 2014 in Central Square that I would find kangkong in Boston.) Kale made for a good substitute, but in the end, was simply another reminder that things had changed. It was a reminder that this was not my home.
Now that I have been living in Boston for almost a decade, I’ve luckily found sources for most of the ingredients that make food taste like home, even if that means taking the Red Line all the way from one end to the other. Now, the question seems to be whether I want the food I cook to be easy or authentic. I am struck by the fact that restaurant reviews will often use that word, “authentic,” to mean that a food is made “correctly,” or with an eye on the culture from which it came. But here I am, simply trying to make food taste the way it does in my memory.
I will admit that there are many times that I end up taking the easy route. But when I do decide to make the effort, I know that it is worth more than just a bag of vegetables or a packet of tamarind concentrate. After all, knowing how far away it is, it will never cease to amaze me that the time it takes to whip up a bowl of Sinigang is all I need to come home.
Frankie Concepcion is a writer, educator, and community organizer from the Philippines. I addition to being GRLSQUASH’s poetry editor, she is also the founder of the Boston Immigrant Writer's Salon, an associate prose editor for Winter Tangerine, and her fiction, essays, and poetry have been published internationally. She currently lives in Somerville, MA. Find her work at frankieconcepcion.com.