Episode 83: Afterthoughts on a Tinola Recipe

For the first time in six years, I cooked chicken tinola.
It all started with some sort of thread on Facebook some time ago. I told my fellow authors that I can cook chicken tinola, to which they insisted for me to make it. We eventually decided that I would serve it in a Christmas party among us. I readily accepted the challenge. I know the recipe and all, so it’s going to be easy, right?

The rain was pouring heavily on December 19, the day of the Christmas party. The bad weather notwithstanding, I borrowed a fellow author’s kitchen, bought the ingredients, and mindlessly started cooking.  
First to go into the pot was eight tablespoons of margarine, instead of the usual spoonfuls of cooking oil that the original recipe demands. I then sautéed on it four pieces of ginger the size of my thumb, already sliced into minuscule pieces, along with eight finely chopped cloves of garlic and two similarly chopped onions. Last was the chicken – all three kilos of it – along with six chicken cubes and four tablespoons of fish sauce. Great care and timing is needed, though, to make sure everything goes into the pot without getting burnt.  
Ginger sautéed with margarine has a subtle, appetizing scent. This blends well with the scent of the mash of ingredients burning over the stove – the strong scent of garlic, the savory juices of the chicken, the pungent onions, and the salty cubes and fish sauce.
I let the chicken simmer in its own juices for about three minutes. Once three minutes have passed, I poured in a pot and a half of rice water, water used to clean rice, and let everything boil.
Next to jump into the pot of broth were half a kilo of diced potatoes, two pieces of chayote (chopped, of course), and a cupful of chili leaves. I let the broth boil for five more minutes before adding two more chicken cubes and a spoonful of fish sauce. For the finishing touch, I chopped six pieces of chili peppers, threw them into the broth, and let the tinola simmer and stand.
The tinola was ready by the time the authors arrived for the party. Everyone had their fill of the dish, which turned out to be perfect for the ongoing weather. I’ll leave the comments on the tinola itself to the concerned authors.
It was during one of my moments of introspection, as I thought of my cooking ordeal on my way home, that everything in my mind slowly fell into place.
I learned some time ago that food plays an important role in our memories. That’s because we associate food with certain events and the emotions evoked from them. This is why some dishes bring, for example, a sense of nostalgia or longing, or a pleasant feeling to a person, especially when dined in a place related to that dish.
When I took on the challenge to cook tinola, I realized I’m going to cook a dish that’s not from the recipe books, but one that I must draw from my memories and feelings. It’s probably gonna feel like writing a bestselling mystery novel or a heartfelt love letter or an autobiography.
I wonder if I can still get in touch with those deep feelings. That was the first thought I had.
To be blunt, chicken tinola is my favorite dish. Tinola, I believe, is the ultimate comfort food – warm broth with savory chunks of chicken, and slices of papaya or chayote, enjoyed best during cold, rainy weather or after a hard day at work and school.
My mother used to cook tinola often. Being her ever-loyal kitchen assistant, I eventually learned the recipe, and started cooking it on my own. This was one of the things I brought to Baguio City when I moved there to study. I cooked tinola whenever I could, if only to cope with the city’s cold nighttime weather. When I eat out, I tried to order tinola whenever it’s available, though I still prefer the recipe I’ve grown up with over the years.
While in Baguio, I ended up making my own variation of the dish. In this variation, I increased the amount of ginger, and used fish sauce and cubes instead of salt. I let the chicken turn slightly brown before adding rice water because the resulting Instead of papayas, I used chayote and potatoes as extenders. I also add finely chopped red chili peppers directly into the broth.
The result is a gingery soup with a thick chicken taste and a spicy finish, complemented with soft chayote and potato chunks mashed over soupy rice to complete the meal. It was, I may say, the best type of soup to have when enduring cold, rainy weather.
The first time I cooked my tinola variation for someone outside the family was back in college. I wanted to introduce this girl I was dating to my mother, and decided I’d go cook it for lunch. Unfortunately, she did not show up.
Despite the heartbreaking experience, I never lost my love for the dish. I even tried out cooking tinola without the chicken, which sort of had the same result. All I needed to do was to boil eggs and mash their yolk over chayote and soupy rice. Yeah, make of that what you will.
To be honest, I stopped cooking tinola, or any proper home-cooked dish for that matter, after my mother died six years ago. I guess it would suffice to say that, for the longest time, I lost the heart to cook. It was as if my cooking abilities were sealed, and all the recipes I knew over the years disappeared from my memories.
Tinola was, for me, not just comfort food. It was the physical manifestation of my hopefulness, my longing for warmth and comfort, my feelings of love, and my positive outlook for the future. It’s the embodiment of the things that fill the belly, warm the heart, and calm the soul. I ate tinola to enrich my heart and nurse myself back to health. I cooked it so that others may find the same positive, comforting energy that I enjoy. Or so I believed.
Perhaps I shall neither praise nor demean my tinola recipe, and instead say I was able to cook the tinola from my memories. That I was able to cook it the way I remember it, and that I have poured the feelings I have into that dish is enough.

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