Arguing Over Tinola

Life can’t be lived in terms of what inspires you in the Chicken Soup series.  After all, a whole discussion over lunch can revolve around what makes a proper tinola.

There’s really nothing to tinola except fresh ingredients and simmering (not boiling: that’s the easiest way to kill the flavor of any dish), but tinola is only as good as what you put in it.  Over lunch today, there was an interesting debate on what should go into this veritable chicken soup.  Papaya or sayote?  Malunggay or sili? Like any recipe, you’ll find a great defense of what is combined into tinola, or what is omitted from it.

Chicken is one of those ingredients that can confound the food historian, the foodie, and the gastronome: there’s no one recipe for any chicken dish on the planet.  Fried chicken alone can divide a culture along the lines of using breading or not.  There’s no one recipe for tinola – for all intents, it’s chicken soup – but even the most basic ingredients can divide the opinions of cooks and diners.

Here are things we did agree on:

  • Bouillon cubes or powdered mixes spoil the flavor of any tinola. One should use a fatty chicken when cooking it; dressed chicken is a no-no for a proper tinola.  Besides, the flavor of tinola – or any soup, for that matter – can be vastly improved with a dash of patis.
  • For added flavor, the cook should include giblets in the simmering soup.
  • You can never go wrong with lots of sauteed garlic, ginger, and onions.  When browned, the aromatics give away a deep, earthy, zesty flavor to the broth.  Oily tinola is good tinola.

The papaya vs. sayote argument has a lot to do with texture and flavor.  The enzymes in fresh green papaya break down the collagen and such in the chicken.  Meat alone does not make great tinola: the bony parts of the chicken are used precisely for the great flavors inside the marrow and connective tissue.  There’s a lot of flavor in bone and cartilage, and papaya can bring those flavors to the broth.  Yet sayote is easier to eat and has a sweeter flavor compared to papaya, and slow careful simmering will bring out the flavors of the chicken anyway.

The verdict: use both.

Malunggay and sili, though, can get the great tinola debate more tedious.  Many health nuts sing praises to the nutritional value of malunggay, but I find the leaves themselves flavorless.  For this Ilocano, the pods of the malunggay are far more valuable than the leaves.  Sili leaves, while not as nutritious as malunggay, are far more delicious: it gives a bit of bite to a soup that would otherwise taste chicken-y and papaya-y or satoye-y (forgive me for those).  Malunggay does not stand the heat and pressure of the simmering process as well as sili, yet the former gives the tinola more volume, making it a more filling soup.

The verdict: use both.

The tinola of my childhood – and the tinola I prefer cooking when I have the patience to cook – is made with a sayote-sili leaves combination, but there are some people who swear by the use of dried chicken blood to flavor the final dish.  That’s much closer to batchoy or dinuguan, but I’m pretty sure it’s worth a try.

There are more things that keep us together than set us apart, but tinola is definitely not one of them.  One thing we could agree on, though, is that tinola should always be served with cold rice.  Better yet, tutong. More than that, good tinola is always made at home.

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