Tinolang isda: Papa’s favorite dish

When people in Manila hear the words “tinola,” they immediately associate it with chicken. Tinola is tinolang manok or chicken soup. However, in Surigao del Sur (or I assume in Southern Philippines), tinolá (with accent on the “la”) means fish soup more than chicken soup. We only make a distinction when it’s chicken and call it tinolang manok. Otherwise, tinolá is simply fish soup.

Tinolang isda (fish soup) was one of my late father’s favorite food. I want to share my food memories about this very humble, very Filipino dish in memory of his first death anniversary. Papa loved his tinola. He could eat tinola for the rest of his life, which he actually did since 2008 up until his death. He was once a voracious meat eater, but since he reached his late sixties and a couple of mild strokes later, Papa consciously revamped his diet and decided to eat mostly fish. We lived in a seaside town where seafood is obviously abundant, so Papa enjoyed many a tolá in his twilight years.

You could use any fresh fish. This makes the soup taste a little sweeter. Otherwise, days-old fish will taste bland and even feel itchy to the tongue. As Papa would say, it’s the taste of fish that should shine when making a good tinola. The other ingredients are minimal—tomato, ginger, lemon grass, salt and pepper. You can then add any green leafy vegetable to pair with the fish. If you want even more flavor, you can use fish head as the main ingredient. The head has all the flavors of fish, so long as it’s fresh you’re guaranteed a delicious fish broth using the same set of aromatics. Papa obviously loved a fish head, and no fish eye was spared in his presence.

I myself love the clear, slightly salty fish broth of tinola. It is the most uncomplicated of tastes. It’s hot water that’s flavored ever so lightly with the fish and the aromatics. It’s similar to tea, clean and soothing. The boiled fish yields a soft, white meat that goes well with a little soy sauce and calamansi. Since I love all things spicy, I add a bit of serrano chilis for some heat.

However, my warm and fuzzy feelings for tinola were not always like this. Growing up in Surigao, tinola was never my favorite. It was another fish dish we almost always have. Back then I considered it unspecial, a humdrum soup for our middle class family. We eat fish when it’s not a pay day, when there’s no special occasion, or when it is a normal, every day. Whenever I hear we’re having tinola, I immediately ask what other accompanying dish my parents were cooking.

As a child clear soup did not exactly entice me, it never looked half as tasty as the crispy fried chicken I see on TV. Worse was when mama would pack this as my baon (school lunch). A fish soup packed in a Selecta container always made me sad. All I could think of was what my classmates would say. I didn’t want to pack a fish lunch ever, much less soup. It’s messy, it’s not exciting, it’s too healthy, it smells like fish, it’s no French fries. It was only after college, when I was fully living on my own in the big city, that I started missing, even craving, the food of my childhood.

I remember the first time I learned how to cook tinola. It was around 2014. I was on my own lifestyle overhaul journey. After years of living like an invincible teenager, smoking, drinking, and eating all the junk I could muster, I decided to learn how to cook for myself. I started with simple red sauce spaghetti, the easiest dish to cook for non-cooks that I would highly recommend. Eventually I craved for the dishes I grew up with, starting with adobo, which Papa also taught me how to cook over the phone. Tinola was the second dish I learned from him, again over the phone. I was surprised that all it took was slice the aromatics, boil them in the water, add the fish and the leafy greens, and, voila, done! I remember feeling so stupid for not learning how to do it sooner. It was even easier than spaghetti, not to mention way healthier too! He found it amusing that I’d expect something with such a clean taste to be so complicated. “Kasayunay da saan, wa lang gayud kanmo interes,” he’d say. (It’s the easiest thing ever, you just were not interested.)

When I eat tinola these days, it will always remind me of Papa. In the past eight years or so, when I’m home in Surigao for vacations, we go to the market together. He prefers maya-maya (red snapper) for tinola, while I like malasugi (tuna) better. If we’re lucky we’ll have grilled tuna belly or panga to go with this staple soup. If we’re indulgent, a portion of the malasugi will be used for kinilaw (ceviché). We sit together for lunch, sweltering in the noontime heat, not even the least bit bothered by the combination of warm rice, hot tinola, grilled fish, and spicy tuna ceviché we’re about to eat. Sometimes a slice of cold, ripe mango ends the meal and life couldn’t be any sweeter.

When Papa was on his final days here in Manila, he was frustrated that he could not eat tinola as easily as he could in our province. Here in the capital, sour soup or sinigang reigns supreme. Not only did Papa hate that it was “pork” sinigang, he loathed the strong sour flavor too. I couldn’t blame him. I felt the same way when I first came to Manila. The sourness of sinigang completely defeats the purpose of soup as comfort food. Its strong sour flavor lashes at you. I remember asking if the soup was rancid before coming to terms that it was supposed to taste that way. Papa felt the same, only now he was sick and wanted nothing more than a taste of home. Unfortunately, fresh fish is not so easily accessible in Manila. He would demand the most unusual fish during those days, like sap-sap, or gangis, fish that were only available back home. One time I gave him salmon sinigang and we had a big fight because he refused to eat it. We both understood it wasn’t just about the fish, he just wanted to be home.

A week ago, I bought a few slices of tuna. I’m not sure how fresh this fish was since I bought it at the supermarket. It did look good in my opinion—glistening, reddish, firm, intact. I boiled water with my own mix of aromatics—tomatoes, onions, lemon grass, serrano chilis, ginger, and bell pepper. I like Chinese cabbage (pechay) with my tinola, so I added almost two thick bunches of pechay to the broth. I lightly fried the two remaining slices of tuna. Both dishes were dipped in a spicy sauce of soy, calamansi, chili, and minced onions. I relish the slight torture of hot clear soup against hot rice and the spicy dip.

These days, it’s a deliberate decision to cook and eat tinola. I eat this soup when I eat too much pork and fast food. I eat this soup when I feel sad and nostalgic. I eat this soup when I want to remember not just papa but mama and my sisters as well. Tinola is the food I grew up with, the food I once hated, and now the food that reminds me how lucky I was to eat real, nourishing food. Tinola reminds me I had it good.

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