Identity Bites, Part III: Sinigang na Isda

Saturday, December 13, 2008 11 comments
This is the third and final part in a series about food and ethnic identity, from a Filipina-American's perspective. Read Part I and Part II here.

My sisters and cousins didn't feel, as I did, that a part of their identity was missing because their Filipino sensibilities were constantly reinforced by close access to the trappings of our native culture, such as food. I felt quite alone in my identity crisis until I received an e-mail from my younger cousin, Mike.

"Basically, I went from having rice and Filipino foods at home on a daily basis to none at all," he wrote about his move to Raleigh, NC nearly two years ago. "The more that I was away from the dishes, the more I wanted them, even the ones I never really liked but ate because I had to."

Finally, someone who shared my feelings of deprivation! I described our mutual condition to Dr. Jeffrey Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of Food in World History. "You're Filipino in some ways, in some circumstances, just like [Mike] who's been taken away from that community and in a sense is in exile from his family and food," he offered. "It suddenly becomes an obsession . . ."

Added Dr. Donna Gabaccia (We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans), "When you take a person from their social network and put them in a different set of not just social networks but also market relationships that aren't delivering familiar ingredients, then the meaning of food will change under those circumstances."

Which is why Mike says he'd now gladly eat the dishes he once rejected: "The next time you see
me and ask why I am eating sisig, it's because I definitely have a new appreciation for what I am eating."

Sizzlin' Sisig
(From Jo at Taking Over the World One Bite at a Time)

I learned this lesson myself a few years ago when I had a miraculous change of appetite regarding dinuguan, a pork stew made with (brace yourself) pig's blood. This was the one dish that I vowed I would never touch with a ten-foot spoon; my older sister Mayella is still traumatized by childhood memories of being served this meal. But a desperate craving for any Filipino food spurred me to drag my husband 90 miles from our then-home in Charlotte, NC to Columbia, SC and the only Pinoy restaurant I could find in the Carolinas. The restaurant, eponymously named Mang (Mister) Tomas, was a non-descript, dingy little diner in an equally non-descript, dingy little strip mall; it wasn't open that day but the owner spotted me peering hungrily through the windows and invited us in.

After listening to my woeful tale of hunger, Mang Tomas insisted that we take home a container of his special-recipe dinuguan - the absolute last dish I would have ordered off the menu. But after all my boo-hooing about how much I missed Filipino food , how could I turn him down? To my eternal gratitude, I accepted and it proved to be one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten.

What was it
that transformed Mang Tomas' dinuguan from a "Fear Factor" dish to an all-time favorite food? Perhaps the stories he told about his own family as he prepared our take-home bag added a flavor of shared nostalgia. Maybe it was the relief at satisfying the clamorous craving for Filipino food. Or perhaps I had the same epiphany as cousin Mike - that my days of dispossession strengthened my appreciation for all aspects of Pinoy culture, even the ones I thought I disliked.

When all is said and done, and I've dissected what Filipino food means to me and others - identity, memory, festivity or family - the most basic fact remains: napaka-sarap ang pagkain Pilipino! "The fact of the matter is that the food tastes good," said Dr. Gabaccia with a laugh. "It adds something to that social experience that you wouldn't have otherwise, which is 'pleasure of the mouth'."

This sensation even soothes concerns about the highly-caloric nature of some Filipino fare. "The taste is distinct - fatty but the best oily, heart-clogging food you could ever have," Mayella said, to which Liza added, "It awakens the tastebuds that I normally don't use from my day-to-day diet. I actually find it exciting to re-taste odd flavors like sinigang (sour soup), bagoong (fermented shrimp paste) or the fatty parts of pork."

The savoring of these flavors isn't limited to those of us who grew up with them - my solidly-Midwestern husband has developed a keen taste for Pinoy cuisine, especially dinuguan and sinigang. His enjoyment of these foods hasn't turned him into a Filipino but it does help him feel closer to my family by allowing him to participate in our cultural heritage. Seeing this, I realized that the act of eating Filipino food isn't an "on/off" switch for my identity - I don't become more or less of a Filipina depending on what I eat. It's simply one light that helps illuminate the whole of me.

So instead of pining and whining that there are no Filipino restaurants nearby, I'm learning to cook these dishes myself, with plenty of long-distance help from my mother in Manila (my phone calls and e-mails often begin with "Mama, how do you make . . .?"). Now, if I find my sense of self dimming a bit, I can simply step into my kitchen and make myself an identity bite to eat.

Sinigang na Isda (Sour Fish Soup)
My husband loves this soup's sourness, which comes from the use of tamarind. Although there are powdered soup mixes available at Asian groceries, they usually contain MSG and other preservatives, and are rather high in sodium. Instead, use tamarind paste which is often found in the Thai or Indian sections. This recipe is adapted from Mridula Baljekar's Best-Ever Curry Cookbook. For a similar soup that uses chicken, check out this recipe for Sinampalukang Manok (Chicken and Tamarind Soup) from josephqt and his blog Recados Filipinos!

Serves 4-6


1 - 2 Tbsps tamarind paste
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
4 oz spinach, bok choy or kangkong leaves, stems stripped and leaves torn or sliced into strips
5 cups prepared fish stock (I use Penzey's Seafood Soup Base)

1/2 daikon radish (about 1/2 -2/3 cup), peeled and finely diced
3/4 cup green beans, cut into 1/2" lengths
1 lb cod or haddock fillet, skinned and cut into strips (or mix 1/2 lb of fish and 1/2 lb of shrimp, peeled and deveined)
salt and black pepper
fish sauce/patis (optional)
steamed rice

To prepare:

1) Pour prepared fish stock into a large pan and add finely diced daikon radish. Cook for 5 minutes then add chopped green beans. Bring to a gentle simmer and continue to stew for 3-5 minutes;
2) Add fish strips, tomatoes and leafy greens. Add tamarind paste and stir until dissolved. Cook for about 2 minutes. If using shrimps, add last.
3) Season the stew with salt and black pepper, and add fish sauce if desired.
4) Serve with steamed rice or enjoy on its own


  • Daily Spud said...

    Identity is a many-faceted thing and our food associations can be bound up with many aspects of that - ethnic, cultural, familial...

    Like the long-lost almond slices I discovered on my last visit to my parents house. They had a powerful childhood and family association for me and the power to bring reassurance in a way that another sweet treat could not - as if the mere smell could transport me to that other time and place and the simplicity and comfort of my childhood.

  • Cris said...

    You must be home reading this and I came here to wish a wonderful vacation, a blessed holiday season and also, I want to tell you that I am very glad we met through blogging one day, hope you can come down with hubby and we can chit chat. :-) xoxoxo

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Heather - Thanks! Sour flavors have a way of perking up the tastebuds, don't they?

    Daily Spud - I know exactly what you mean. Exploring the flavors of different cuisines or experimenting with new, unusual ingredients add depth to our experiences but it's often the most simple food that brings us back to our most personal core.

    Oysterculture - I'm back and ready to blog! I'll be posting new material soon.

    Cris - I'm so fortunate to have met you and other new friends through blogging! We are absolutely determined to visit Brazil in the near future - I promise to keep you posted. In the meantime, I've got quite a few of your recipes lined up to make. I hope I'll make you proud! Happy New Year!!

  • Dee said...

    Oh, my! This soup looks delicious. I am glad you posted photos of the seasonings & such. It will make them easier for the novice persons like myself to spot them at the Asian market in Austin. Next trip home I'll look for those. Happy New Year.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Dee - I've found it so helpful when other blogs posted pix of unfamiliar ingredients. The stock bases from Penzey's are very convenient since I've never made my own although it's on my list of culinary New Year's resolutions!

  • Chef E said...

    You know I was in St Louis visiting my son and we must have walked by this store called Penzey's a hundred times and I only noticed it as the cab was taking me to the airport to return home :(

    Now lets hope I can find one near me here in NJ!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Chef E - Although Penzey's website ( is great, nothing beats walking into the store and sniffing the sample jars of their dried herbs and spices. It tempts me to buy something that I don't even know what to do with! Hope you do find one in NJ. 8-)

  • Sinigang said...


    Your Sinigang looks really delicious!

    I'm collecting a list of the best sinigang recipes in my blog, and I included your sinigang recipe (just a link though, hope you don't mind). You can see it at

    Keep in touch!

    Tanya Regala


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