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Chicken Tinola – Stewed Chicken with Ginger as Comfort Food


All cultures have dishes popularly designated as comfort food. The American list includes pizza, fries, fried chicken, spaghetti, mac and cheese, and chicken soup, while the British seem to have a decided fondness for fish and chips, trifle, and scones. Filipinos also have their own comfort foods, and one of the best loved Filipino recipes is “tinola”, a chicken stew strongly flavored with fish sauce, ginger, onions, and pepper leaves.

Tinola in the Old Days

This simple stew has a long history of honor and comfort. It is mentioned in Noli Me Tangere, an 1887 novel written by Jose Rizal, one of the heroes of the country. In the beginning of the novel, he describes one of the characters having chicken tinola, and as the honored guest of the dinner, he is served the choice parts. The tradition of setting aside choice parts of the tinola went on for centuries – until it became possible to cook this stew with as many wings or drumsticks as you wanted.

Before fast growing broilers entered the culinary scene, the centerpiece of this stew was a plump hen – preferably one that had laid eggs for at least one season. Its broth would be clear and rich (without the aid of bouillon cubes), with some yellow bits of natural poultry fat. The chicken liver would be a much coveted morsel, and the other chicken parts would be distributed to family members according to their preference. In rural areas where a hen had to be slaughtered, the hen’s blood would be allowed to coagulate. Later, this would be dropped into the boiling broth.

Preparing Tinola

Chicken tinola is cooked with wedges of unripe papaya, and many cooks believe that this helps soften the chicken. In the southern islands of the Philippines, the dish is prepared with a stalk of lemon grass and horseradish leaves, but northerners will stick to tender chili leaves and omit the lemon grass. In just about all Filipino communities, chicken “tinola” is a popular comfort food, and diners will not only sip the soup; they will pour it over their rice as well.

Panlasang Pinoy, a Filipino food website especially popular with Filipinos living abroad, has this to say about tinola:

“The secret in making a good chicken tinola is to simmer the chicken for longer periods of time. This will let all the flavor of the chicken come out and it also makes the chicken tender. You can also use malunggay leaves instead of pepper leaves (or even both) to maximize the health benefits…”

Comfort and Health

Chicken tinola is one of dishes prepared in Filipino homes when someone is sick and need nourishment from soup. It is the quintessential home-cooked dish; many families like to cook it when the weather is cold, but they will just as soon prepare it just about any occasion.

Chicken tinola is believed to have many medicinal properties because of its ingredients, particularly ginger. A publication of the University of Maryland Medical Center describes the medical uses of this rhizome:

“Today, health care professionals may recommend ginger to help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting from motion sickness, pregnancy, and cancer chemotherapy. It is also used to treat mild stomach upset, to reduce pain of osteoarthritis, and may even be used in heart disease…”

This traditional Filipino recipe is now cooked without having to simmer a hen for hours. The process has been conveniently shortened, and in many places it has also become necessary to use substitute ingredients. The more readily available chayote is often used in instead of green papaya, and tender spinach leaves quite often serve as the soup’s greens. Broilers or Cornish hens have taken the place of free range stewing hens, and where fresh ginger is not available, ginger powder will have to do. The end result, however, is tinola that is still as delicious and just as comforting as it has been through generations.

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