The peasant history of Boiled Beef Soup (Nilagang Baka)


Boiled beef is a food form that has firm ties with the peasant class. Not having the means to buy the more expensive cuts, poor folk from Europe, Asia, or the Americas had to settle for the tougher cuts of meat for sustenance.

But these bony, sinewy parts proved to be the best for creating a deep-flavored broth, and by long simmering, the beef cartilage and collagen are broken down and become soft and gelatinous.

Among the international boiled beef dishes that still exist today, though not as popular as before, are the French pot-au-feu, the English boiled beef and carrots, and the Jewish (and Irish-American) boiled corned beef brisket.

In the Philippines, we have the Nilagang Baka and Bulalo, a specialty of the cattle-grazing provinces of Batangas and Cavite.

Serve this steaming bowl of Nilagang Baka with hot rice and fish or soy sauce on the side

Serve this steaming bowl of Nilagang Baka with hot rice and fish or soy sauce on the side

Throughout much of human history, cattle and most of its bovine kin were regarded as capital. (Indeed, the very word capital comes from the Latin caput, or head, of cattle.)

They were draught animals, much valued for their assistance in plowing the land, moving cartloads of goods, and of course, as a source of milk.

“An animal was not slaughtered until it was fit for nothing else,” said Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in A History of Food.

A “gastronomic wealth of recipes” was thus born using precisely this kind of tough meat, including the classic French dish pot-au-feu.
Julia Child sings the praises of this food in Mastering the Art of French Cooking: “The potée, like all boiled dinners, is easy on the cook because it can simmer quietly by itself for four to five hours, and if it is done before serving time it can remain in its kettle where it will keep warm for a good hour.”

Her recipe for pot-au-feu is a bit grand though since it includes, not just beef, but also pork, chicken and sausage, all cooked together in an earthenware pot. (Pot-au-feu is French for cooking in a pot over fire.)
The earlier versions of   are simpler: a nod to the egalitarian ethos of the French. It would have cheap cuts of beef and vegetables that are in season including carrots, onions, turnips, celery, parsnips, and leeks.
Indeed, because boiled beef is a countryman’s dish. In England, boiled beef and carrots is known “Cockney” food, referring to the working class district  of London’s east end.

In ancient times to the Middle Ages, and indeed, up until the invention of refrigeration, beef when obtained was almost always salted and brined in order to prolong its use.

This was an essential item especially for soldiers and sailors who toiled for years in their various war campaigns and expeditions. Meat that was salted usually found a second life once it was boiled in water, and vegetables were thrown in for added flavor and nutrition.

This brings us to the story of Irish boiled bacon and cabbage. This is a traditional dish in Ireland, featuring cured and unsliced bacon,
potatoes, and cabbage.

When the Irish immigrants arrived in America they found that bacon was hard to come by, but corned beef brisket was plentiful.

A quick substitution ensued, and so now in America, especially during St. Patrick’s Day, you can partake of the Irish or Jewish versions of the boiled corned beef, or another version up the east coast called the New England Boiled Dinner (the recipe is almost the same as the Irish one, although they sometimes use pork shoulder ham).

In the Philippines, our version of the boiled beef dinner is of course Nilagang Baka. Ours, however, is a one-pot dish where we savor the soup as much as we enjoy the supple beef.

Our variations are Bulalo, wherein the fatty bone marrow is the sought after morsel; Puchero, which combines chorizo and saba (plantains) to the boiled beef shanks; and Kansi, a hybrid dish from Negros province that also uses beef marrow and shanks (like Bulalo) but also adds the local batuan fruit to bring a tartness to the soup (much like sinigang).

The European version of the boiled dinner has evolved into one wherein they scoop out the beef or other meats, slice it against the grain into serving pieces, and serve it in a plate together with the cooked vegetables. Another progression is the addition of a piquant sauce such as mustard or horseradish, or a creamier alternative like white sauce.

In contrast, we like to eat our boiled beef dishes in a plate together with steamed white rice, with a seasoning of either patis (fish sauce) or soy sauce, drizzled with the local lime calamansi. We also love to have a separate bowl of the beef soup on the side, to slurp down in between mouthfuls of the tender beef.

There are only two key things to remember in making a good Nilagang Baka.

One is to make sure to include some beef bones (marrow, or kneecaps) together with the stewing meat (shank or otherwise), and second, to maintain a gentle simmer over the soup for several hours, or until the meat is tender.

Avoid though a rolling boil that will only make the meat tough and stringy.

2 kilos combination of beef bones (marrow, kneecaps, or brisket bone-in) and stewing beef or shanks
1 yellow onion, sliced
1-inch ginger, sliced
3 potatoes, peeled and quartered
250 grams Baguio beans, trimmed and sliced diagonally
1 small cabbage, quartered
1-2 tablespoons salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

Place the meat and bones in a deep pot, add the onions, ginger, whole peppercorns, and enough water to cover meat. As it comes to a boil, skim off the scum. Lower the heat, cover, and simmer until the meat is tender, about three hours. (If using bulalo, remove it when cooked so that the marrow doesn’t spill out of the bone.)

Add the potatoes and salt. When the potatoes are done, place the cabbage on top of the soup and cook for a further five minutes.

Return the cooked bone marrow to the soup. Add the Baguio beans and cook for two minutes. Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot with rice and fish or soy sauce on the side.


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1 Comment

  1. Eneng, tunay namang nakakagutom ari. Pihong bagakbak ang pawis ko dini sa putahe mong ari. Ako’y napurba din minsan-minsan na magluto ng ganito. Naglalagay din ako ng kinchay at minsa’y pechay sa halip na repolyo. Salamat hija sa iyong article na ito. Hindi nakakaumay at matab-ang sa lasa ng politika.