Friday, November 14, 2008
My Unique Take on the Popular Bulalo Soup
Many, many moons ago, when gas prices in Manila was a peso per liter, it was not considered profligate to drive down to Santo Tomas, Batangas and plunk down some hard-earned money for a bowl of steaming bulalo soup. Those were the heydays of this popular Filipino gastronomic find, following the unprecendented popularity of crispy pata many years before it. I never found out how the inventors of this beef bone soup arrived at the moniker bulalo. And my admitedly limited knowledge of Tagalog names for a cow's anatomical parts precluded my ever learning how the name bulalo came to denote beef bones soup. But I stopped snooping around and just concentrated on enjoying it.
It would be many more years when I got to cook bulalo on my own terms, here in Los Angeles, where one could buy soup bones that actually had meat and tendon on them. Sometime in the mid-90s, my wife met an elderly man who hailed from Northern Luzon who was familiar with uncommon vegetables that were grown in the farms of Mountain Province. It was one of those lesser known but suprisingly good vegetables that were not as prominent and well known as say, pechay (bok choy) and kang-kong (known here as swamp greens). This veggie is called watercress. And they are available in grocery stores and in farmer's markets. To the uninitiated, it could pass for cilantro, almost. I do not know its name in Filipino, but I am told by this elderly man that they were grown in and around Baguio City and sold in its public market. I did not have an opportunity to encounter watercress in Baguio City, but I am quite sure that I had eaten some in the "Slaughter House" restaurants somewhere in the city's periphery, where slaughterhouse-fresh beef was elevated to the status of the best nilagang baka (boiled beef with vegetables) in the whole archipelago. I have now a hazy recollection that those boiled beef in these unpretentious diners were somehow tweaked with the slightly bitter flavor of watercress.
That senior citizen gifted us with a couple of bunches of watercress and suggested that I use it on nilagang baka. But I did him one better by using the greens to customize my bulalo soup. There's only one Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles in the early 90s that treated bulalo in a style that's quite unique and had a taste that's memorable. The Jeepney Grill (now closed), located at the corner of Alexandria and 6th Streets in the mid-Wilshire area, achieved an unrivaled reputation for its unique take on bulalo soup. Their version had sesame seeds sprinkled on the soup, plus julienne-cut carrots, and the bok choi.
After my fortuitous introduction to the watercress, I began concocting my own version of bulalo soup with watercress and bok choi. And that was it. A little sprinkle of ground pepper, fish sauce (patis) and salt. Tonight, after a marathon boiling session, in which I tenderized a kilo of supermarket-bought bones with meat and tendons still sticking on them, I threw in a few cubes of beef chuck to give it more meat, and my bulalo was almost complete. A quick run to a nearby Vons Supermarket produced a bunch of watercress ($1.29 a bunch). I cut off the stems, threw one-half of the bunch into the stew, and added one large bok choi sliced into three-inch pieces. My bulalo is the best foil for a nippy autumn evening in the Southland.
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