Sinigang (Philippine sour soup), be it with fish, pork, or beef, is considered one of the easiest Filipino dishes. You boil the water, tenderize the meat, throw in a cube and some vegetables and you’re done.
But it’s not as simple for me and perhaps for others too who grew up with utilitarian plants and trees. There’s a feeling of guilt or duplicity or both when I take shortcuts and use a bouillon sinigang cube. Why so? It’s because I grew up with a kamias tree.
Kamias (averrhoa bilimbi) is a medium-sized tropical tree that grows plump edible fruits noted for their tangy sour taste. They are perfect for flavoring sinigang dishes although Filipinos have been known to also use other citrusy local fruits like sampalok, santol, guava, batwan, and the Philippine lime, kalamansi.
Even without the fruit, you can identify the kamias tree by its leaves, which are light green and feathery, a pinnate compound, if you ask a botanist.
Quezon City in the 1970s where I spent my youth was the growing capital of a nation, well-designed with the future pinned on its becoming the new Washington, D.C. Government offices were built around a beautiful elliptical circle with a park, and it was intended that Congress and the rest of government would soon move here.
Yet most parts of the city were still rural countryside, with new residents from the provinces who still held on to their rural ways and traditions. Indeed, it was as Isabel Allende described her own hometown in her book My Invented Country, “The Santiago of my childhood had the pretensions of a large city but the soul of a village.”
Thus in the government housing “projects” (Projects 1 to 8, GSIS and SSS villages, and so forth) where I had lived many households raised domestic animals to augment their food supply, such as chickens, pigs, ducks, and cows. (A trivia: That 60s to 70s term for lower-middle class youth, “jeproks,” popularized in a rock song by Mike Hanopol, is a reverse of the word “projects.”)
There were nearby rice fields where water buffaloes helped the farmers plow the land, and old women in long skirts and aprons, using their makeshift rods to catch rice field frogs. You can see a pig being butchered, chickens plucked, and I know they were doing a “capon” on some poor ruminant but this one I refused to watch.
All manner of plants and trees were grown especially the ones useful for the kitchen, or in pacifying the rambunctious children: aratiles, caimito, mango, guava, coconut, papaya, malunggay, and kamias, were among those planted around our house. In the still unclaimed lands there were siniguelas, mabolo (kamagong), sampaloc, and plenty of bananas. I’m sure there were other evergreen trees but my inner hungry child only remembers the fruit trees.
Our kamias tree was especially productive, even though it never grew to be a big-sized tree. The greenish fruits were concentrated on the trunk, hanging there in thick clumps. In the rare times it didn’t produce enough fruit, the neighbor was always obliging with their own tree.
As kids, we were the ones tasked with picking the fruits, filling the recycled tin cans. The big fruits were for the kitchen; the little ones were for the little mouths.
When using kamias for sinigang, you have to first boil them in a saucepan until soft, and then crush with a fork over a mesh strainer in order to get its tart juices. Sometimes we didn’t even bother using a strainer. We boiled them with the pork, took them out to mash, and returned the whole pulpy mess back into the simmering pot.
The preferred protein for sinigang soup, in our household, was pork (ribs, or any part with lots of bones, the buto-buto). Occasionally, we had shrimp. Of course, it won’t be sinigang without a lot of vegetables from the backyard garden.
We grew kangkong for the sinigang in little pond that was fed from an open drainage canal. The water as I remember it was clean and smelled of rain. We didn’t always have all the vegetables we needed, but we always had a gabi plant growing since it was also used as pig fodder.
Gabi or taro (Colocasia esculenta) is an edible tuber that’s high in starch but also rich in vitamins and minerals. You can always tell a sinigang cooked by someone from Pampanga or Central Luzon; their sinigang soup is cloudy and thickened with gabi.
Quezon City since that time has become more of an urban jungle, now part of the burgeoning Metro Manila. (It ceased to be the capital city in 1976.) There are few reminders that it once was a green oasis, but the old-growth trees are now few and far between. It’s also difficult now to source kamias, although sometimes you can get lucky in the wet markets.
For certain, those of us who grew up in the former capital city will always remember our old bucolic wonderland. Those were the hal–cyon days when you picked kamias from your own tree to cook sinigang, instead of peeling the wrapper from yet another bouillon cube.
1 kilo pork ribs or “pang-sinigang” cut
1 onion, sliced
5 ripe native tomatoes, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
12 pieces large kamias
2-3 small pieces of gabi, peeled and quartered
a bunch of sitaw (string beans)
a bunch of kangkong (water spinach)
1 to 2 pieces of finger chilies.
salt and patis (fish sauce) to taste
1. Place the pork in a large pot and fill with enough water to cover. Add in the onions, tomatoes, and garlic. Bring to a boil, skim off the scum, and lower heat to a simmer.
2. Boil the kamias and crush to get its juices out. Set aside.
3. In a separate container, boil the peeled and cleaned gabi until soft. Mash half of the gabi, and keep half in their quarter cut.
4. When the pork is tender, add the kamias juice, the cooked gabi, the radish and the eggplant. Season with salt or patis.
5. When the radish is soft, add the rest of the vegetables (don’t overcook), and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot in individual bowls.