Sinigang, that fruit-soured broth filled with good things, is one of the primary comfort foods of Filipinos who have pulled up their stakes and moved abroad. There’s just something so soothing about it for them.
Some expatriate friends of mine wax poetic about their mothers’ pork sinigang, a virtuous tamarind broth made sinful by chunks of meltingly tender pork belly. (Yes, there is no substitute for liempo in pork sinigang.) Other friends both here and abroad sing the praises of a sweetish sinigang na bangus [milkfish] made with ripe guavas (the pink-centered ones, not those bland Thai imports) or of boldly-colored sinigang na sugpo [prawns] made scarlet with cooked crustaceans and sauteed tomatoes. Occasionally at our house, a highly savory sinigang made with beef kalitiran, string beans, and gabing Intsik (small, roundish taro roots) makes its appearance on our dinner table.
As far as my dad and I are concerned, though, our sinigang of choice is a tad pretentious in the sense that the protein of choice comes from beautifully pink salmon heads and bellies. As luck would have it, I chanced upon a little hole in the wall in Quezon City where the salmon head sinigang borders on the ambrosial.
Ulo-ulo sa Malakas isn’t much to look at the first time you step into it; just a steam table and a few tables and chairs in what appears to be someone’s home garden. Really, though, it’s what gives the place part of its charm.
The steam table is where it’s at and you will find huge stockpots filled with salmon heads in broth sitting alongside smaller pots holding ginataang talakitok (trevally braised in coconut cream), kinilaw na puso ng saging (blanched and shredded banana hearts sauteed with onions and cooked with vinegar), and gloriously golden slabs of lechong kawali just waiting to be chopped into manageable chunks.
I would suggest starting your meal with the kinilaw as the tart flavors and crisp-ish texture of the shredded banana heart are a perfect way to wake up your tastebuds. This particular version is also a bit on the spicy side, seeing how the cook has a heavy hand for dusting on the ground pepper.
The sinigang itself is shown at the top of this page. It’s a milder affair than most commercially-prepared salmon sinigang but has its own way of luring people back. For one thing, the salmon flesh is moist – the sign of perfect poaching. It doesn’t taste fishy at all and slides down one’s throat quite smoothly. You must – I repeat: must – eat the eye; it’s crisp, gelatinous, and particularly savory. The somewhat sweetish taste of the fish goes with the savory bitterness of the mustasa (mustard/wasabi greens) that come with it. This goes for PhP 60.00 per half helping (half a fish head) and PhP 150.00 for the whole noggin; sans rice, of course, as you have to shell out an additional PhP 5.00 for that.
Ulo-ulo sa Malakas: Malakas St., Bgy. Pinyahan, Diliman, Quezon City. (Beside the Flora Ylagan High School behind the Land Transportation Office compound.)