In any listing of favorite Philippine soup dishes, chicken tinola suffers by comparison with other one-pot wonders like sinigang na baboy or nilagang baka (and its variant, bulalo).
The culinary objections range from tinola’s supposed bland taste, to its general lack of flavor and character, to an outrageous remark from a foodie-friend that the soup dish tastes “too much like chicken.”
Pity that such a dish that figures so prominently in Jose Rizal’s classic work Noli Me Tangere lacks a universal appeal among Filipinos. In Rizal’s Noli, a bowl of tinola with only an unfortunate “bare neck and a tough wing” floating about is used to great effect to display the arrogance and calumny of one Padre Damaso.
So why the general lack of approbation for a dish that has been around since the nineteenth century? Given its Malay tones in the use of endemic ginger and green papaya, the dish most likely even predates the Spanish era and should have gained popular traction by this time.
The simple reason is the preference of modern-day Filipinos for ease and speed, which thwarts the creation of full and natural flavors in our traditional food. Thus, the popularity of these MSG-laden bouillon cubes and instant mixes that act as poor substitutes for a proper meat stock for soups or stews, or deign to replace natural fruits as souring or tenderizing agents.
Taking the time to cook tinola properly will result in a dish that you would want to eat with the same fervor and regularity as sinigang or nilaga. There’s something deeply satisfying about a well-prepared chicken soup. It is especially welcome during the monsoon when everything’s wet and all you want is a warm, aromatic bowl of goodness.
There will be a subtle difference in the soup when you use free-range or native chicken, though it’s not a deal-breaker. However, in the vegetable/fruit department, I tend to be dogmatic in the use of green papaya. I like knowing that green papaya contains papain, an enzyme that will help the body digest proteins. Nothing against those who use sayote or even squash (Rizal’s version) but for me, a traditional version means using green papaya.
In the same vein, my preference is for malunggay or moringa oleifera, instead of pepper leaves. The health benefits of malunggay are well-known (it has essential amino acids, a rarity in the plant world) and to get the full spectrum of its vital nutrients, place a generous amount in the soup, and put some more raw leaves on the side for those wanting an extra-dose of multi-vitamins.
It is high time to give chicken tinola a regular place in the dining table. A bit of time and patience are required, and investment in more chicken legs than necks and wings, lest you want a Damaso-like tantrum from a beloved family member.
1 whole cut-up chicken (add several more pieces of drumsticks, thighs)
1 small-size green papaya, sliced into 2-inch cubes
1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2-inches ginger, chopped
4-5 cups of water (just enough to cover the chicken pieces)
patis (fish sauce)
2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup leaves of malunggay leaves
1. Wash the chicken pieces over running water, drain in a colander, and set aside.
2. Heat up a deep saucepan, pour in the olive oil and when warm add the onions. Saute for about three minutes until soft and glistening. Blend in the garlic, move around for about 10 seconds or just until you get a good whiff of that garlicky goodness. Toss in the ginger and continue to quick stir, about two minutes more.
3. Slowly drop in the chicken pieces and move around to allow a good coating and blending in with the aromatics. Have a sit, this is the patience part, where you should do a proper braise. Every now and then, stand up and turn the chicken pieces; you should start to see the natural oils oozing out of the chicken. This is good as this is where you will get a strong flavor for your soup.
4. Add two tablespoons of patis to the chicken and mix about. Total sautéing time for the chicken pieces, about 10 to 15 minutes.
5. When you see that the chicken has rendered its fat and flavors, pour in the water and de-glaze the pan. Let the soup come to a boil, remove some of the scum that rises, and then add the papaya pieces.
6. Cover and let it cook further until the chicken and papaya are tender, about 20 minutes.
7. Taste the tinola soup and add more patis and some salt, to taste. Add the malunggay leaves. Serve hot with steamed rice and patis on the side.