by Katie McColgan, FINDink Contributor
Being a third generation Filipino American, I always felt like my strongest, and sometimes only connection to my Filipino heritage was through food.
Growing up, I never felt like I was Filipino enough. I’ve never been to the Philippines, never learned my grandparent’s language, and didn’t know about any cultural traditions. The one thing I did have was the food, and so I held my relationship with Filipino food very close to me.
Filipino food is also a very strong connection I have with “home”. Adobo, pancit, and lumpia were all very frequent occurrences in my household, and rice was a daily staple. Other dishes like singigang, pinakbet and kare kare were more often eaten when I’d visit my extended family. But no matter what it was, eating Filipino food always made me feel that much more validated in my Filipino-American identity, and proud to claim it as my own.
But now, as a college freshman living off dining hall food, I find myself dreaming of having a kitchen, and living vicariously through the pictures of home cooked meals my mom will send me from time to time. Since being in Boston, I’ve made pancit, and my friends have made me adobo, but nothing comes close to a home-cooked meal from my mom.
There is one dish in particular that I miss the most; one of the last meals I ate before I left home, and the first meal my mom made for me when I came back for winter break. However, I didn’t have a name for it until recently when I was asked about my favorite Filipino food and I realized that I didn’t even know the name. At home, my family just called this dish Upo Soup-o, a cute rhyming name for my favorite dinner. But upon a quick google search, I discovered that the actual name is Ginisang upo.
Ginisang upo is a very simple stew with tomatoes, some kind of meat, and of course: upo. The word “ginisa” means sauteed, which is a pretty self-explanatory name for the dish. Upo, otherwise known as bottle gourd, calabash, or long melon is a very mild vegetable that just absorbs the flavors of the broth it cooks in.
The soup itself isn’t all that special, there are very few ingredients in total, but I guess it’s that simplicity that makes it so comforting and familiar. There is sweetness from the tomatoes, saltiness and umami from the fish sauce, a refreshing crunch of upo and a fattiness from the pork. There is no special secret ingredient, or fancy cooking technique, but nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite foods.
Recently, I had really been craving a homemade meal of upo soup, but when I asked my mom for a recipe, of course she didn’t have one written down. She gave me the ingredients and general guidelines to her own version, but told me that everyone has their own variation. Upon looking for recipes online, I found she was right, and that every website had their own twist to a similar dish.
Wanting to recreate my mom’s version the best I could, I decided to go with what she told me over the phone, and from what I remembered when I cooked with her back home. I also thought that this was the perfect opportunity to document the process by writing a recipe myself so I could share my favorite food with my others.
This week, I went grocery shopping in Chinatown to find upo (unfortunately there was no upo in sight at my local Whole Foods), invaded my friend’s kitchen and cooked dinner for a bunch of people. This was my first time cooking in a long time since I haven’t had access to a kitchen during my freshman year of college, so I was nervous that I would mess something up or that no one would like what I made. Or even worse: that I wouldn’t be able to recreate something that lived up to what my mom made for me at home.
But all that worry melted away once I tasted what I made and rush of warm nostalgia filled me. My self-confidence boosted, I more confidently splashed in some more fish sauce and served up bowls of food to my friends.
Below, I wrote up my version of my favorite food to share with you all!
Upo Soupo (Ginisang upo according to me)
When I think of comfort food, I think of a warm bowl of upo soup and rice. It is super easy and quick to make, budget-friendly and definitely a household favorite.
Pork spare ribs
2 pints of cherry tomatoes
2 medium-sized upo, peeled and sliced into half moons
1 medium onion sliced into strips
4 cloves of minced garlic
2–4 tablespoons of fish sauce (patis)
2–3 cups of water
1 tbsp cooking oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Note: All of these ingredients are totally adjustable to your liking! You can use however much of any of these you’d like, and different substitutes too! Instead of upo, you could use other vegetables like bitter gourd or even sayote. For meat, I chose to use pork because it’s my favorite, but some recipes I’ve seen online use shrimp, canned sardines or a combination of pork and shrimp. You can also adjust the fish sauce to how salty you like it, and water to how soupy you want it.
Heat pan and add cooking oil (Use a pot/pan deep enough to hold all the vegetables and water later)
Sautee onion and garlic
Add tomatoes and cover with lid until soft. Then mash with a fork (just enough to split tomatoes and let juices out)
Add pork and cook until browned (stir to make sure all sides are cooked)
Add upo and stir to combine
Add fish sauce to season and stir again
Add water and let simmer over medium heat for 10–12 minutes, or until upo is tender and becomes more translucent
Add more fish sauce and salt to taste
Serve over rice and enjoy hot!
And that’s it for my making my favorite food! Your hands might smell a bit like garlic and fish sauce when you are done, but it’s well worth it for a full belly and the feeling of home.
Getting to share my favorite meal, both by actually cooking for my friends, and posting this version online has been such a rewarding experience, and I can’t wait to do this more when I actually have a kitchen next semester.
Home doesn’t feel as far away anymore, now that I’ve brought the taste of home along with me.
Disclaimer: The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of FIND, Inc.