The late great Philippine food writer Doreen G. Fernandez once said that all cuisines had what she called a “basic boil” – which is to say a dish cooked in boiling water in just the right way. In the Philippines, the basic boil is referred to as nilaga which, in Filipino, is really the past tense verb “boiled”.
However, the contents of a nilaga may change the dish’s name. Depending on the kind of meat used, it may become a nilagang baka (boiled beef) or a nilagang baboy (boiled pork) and here, the meat is cooked with a combination of cabbage, Savoy cabbage, potatoes, and Chinese cabbage. This is, essentially, an Asian take on a New England Boiled Dinner sans the salt-cured beef. The addition of a souring agent such as tamarinds (sampaloc) or bilimbi fruit (kamias) turns it into the classic Pinoy comfort food sinigang. Made with chicken, some julienned ginger, green papaya, and either dahong sili (the leaves of the bird’s-eye chili [siling labuyo] plant) or moringa leaves (malunggay), the dish becomes a tinola or, as it’s called in the northern provinces, a lauya. In Muslim Mindanao, fish takes the place of other proteins and the lemongrass-scented dish is referred to as tiyula.
At our house, the nilagang baka that usually appears at our dinner table is what I refer to as the standard version (cabbage, potatoes, the usual stuff). So it was a great surprise the other night when I came home from work and saw another variation of this classic dish: pocherong Bisaya.
In Doreen Fernandez’s Tikim: Essays on Philippine Food and Culture, this dish:
…consists of a beef bone with marrow, boiled long and slowly with an ear of corn which sweetens the broth, and with finely sliced (finer than julienne slices) bamboo shoot, which adds an indefinable flavor and texture.
This is different from the modern pochero most Filipinos are familiar with: a medium-density stew made with pork, chicken, starchy saba bananas, potatoes, cabbage, and tomato sauce. To be perfectly honest, it’s more like bulalo, a type of nilaga made with huge, meaty marrow bones filled with cholesterol-raising goodness rather than the usual stewing cuts: meat and veg cooked in a clear broth. Both bulalo and pocherong Bisaya exude a richness that sets them apart from the usual bowl of boiled beef in broth: the former because of the sinful marrow and the latter because of the sweetness imparted by the corn along with the addition of a ham bone.
I cannot really call this a genuine pocherong Bisaya; for that, you must travel to Cebu and eat at the now legendary Abuhan Restaurant or to my late grandmother’s home province of Leyte to savor it in all its glory. For one thing, our cook is from the Bicol Region and, for another, we didn’t have any bamboo shoots so the usual Savoy cabbage took its place. Nevertheless, this was a real treat.
Under ordinary circumstances, we’re a garrulous lot at the dinner table. That night, though, we quietly savored the meal: the savory, beefy tang of gorgeously tender meat, the sweetish broth with just a faint hint of smokiness from the ham bone, vegetables that looked limp but still had a bit of crunch when bitten into. The broth was sipped out of cups or ladled generously over steaming hot white rice. Even my mother who usually dribbles a bit of patis (fish sauce) mixed with kalamansi (native lime) juice to add savor did not feel the need to add any additional condiments to the dish. Yes, it was that good.