Filipino Food: Tinola (Chicken Soup)

When I was growing up in Brooklyn, my Dad had a fairly lush garden in our backyard. As a kid, I didn't think much of it, but through my adult eyes I now marvel at how lucky I was. Like most houses in Brooklyn, we had more concrete than dirt. Our front yard was defined by an iron fence imbedded in cinder blocks and our driveway was nothing more than a continuation of the paved sidewalk. Our backyard was 1/2 garage, 1/4 cement, and 1/4 boxed dirt. The garden couldn't have been bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet. But my Dad grew vegetables and flowers that transformed our backyard into a paradise every summer. Peppers, tomatoes, and a Filipino gourd called upo were his three main plants. The picture above shows my Dad and me in our backyard about 15 years ago. Those are upo hanging from the canopy.

The dish that my Mom would make every summer (using my Dad's veggies) was tinola. It's a simple chicken soup that most Filipinos make with upo and pepper leaves. Sadly, I do not have access to upo and pepper leaves. Although you can buy upo at specialty Asian markets, I would have to drive at least 30 minutes to the nearest one. As for pepper leaves, unless you grow peppers you probably won't have access to the leaves. Most grocery stores will sell peppers, but the leaves are another story.

The tinola recipe below has substitutions for the upo and pepper leaves. Chayote is a tropical squash about the size of an avocado. It is light green and fleshy, and doesn't have a particularly strong taste. Like upo, it assumes the flavors of the other stronger ingredients in the recipe. Baby spinach is less bitter than regular spinach, and is similar to pepper leaves in texture and taste.

2 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 large yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 chicken breasts, on the bone
1 chayote, sliced
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup patis (fish sauce)
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 cup chopped baby spinach

In a simmering pot melt the butter over medium heat. Saute the onions for a few minutes, then add the ginger and garlic. Add the chicken and brown both sides. Add the chayote, salt, and pepper, and stir. Add the patis, chicken broth, and water, then cover the pot. Once the ingredients start to simmer, lower heat and cook for 45 minutes. Add baby spinach and stir. Cover pot and cook for another 5 minutes.

Serve with jasmine rice.

One note about the chicken: my kids are finicky when it comes to meat on the bone. My Mom made tinola with chicken wings, which made it easy to serve. My kids are not a fan of dark meat, so I use chicken breasts in my recipe. But I think it's important to use chicken breasts with the bone still in. The bones add flavor to the soup that you just can't get with store bought broth. To avoid my kids' ire, I will shred the meat from the bone prior to serving the tinola. However, I will place the bones in my own bowl and eat around them. My kids laugh at me, but that's okay. I tell them "it's a Filipino thing."