I have some fond memories of this dish. Whenever I have Chicken Tinola it always reminds me of my childhood spent in the Philippines when my family was living on the military bases at San Miguel and Subic Bay. I was in 4th grade when we lived in San Miguel, about 45 minutes outside of Manila. I usually rode my bike home for lunch, cutting across a field of coconut trees all the kids called "The Snake Field". The Snake Field was about 40 yards wide and there was a well-used dirt path that cut straight through it. If you were smart, you would get a good fast start on your bike before you got to the Snake Field because you wanted to ride through that 40 yards at full speed with your feet in the air in case any snakes happened to be crossing or trying to cross. A 9 year-old's imagination can go wild with the thoughts of giant boa constrictors or anacondas and even cobras jumping up out of the grass to get you! My house was just on the other side of the grove and I always arrived tired.
Like every officer's family, we enlisted a maid to cook and clean for us. Our maids were almost always a young, unmarried woman who was referred to us by someone in our extended family. She had her own living quarters in our house next to the laundry room. I never got to see how our maid prepared this dish but she always seemed to make it for lunch. If I ate fast enough I could make it back to school going around the houses instead of back through the Snake Field. Can you imagine eating so fast at lunchtime and hurrying back to school and then getting a cramp as you're pedalling your way through the Snake Field only to have to stop?? I was so horrified at the thought! The maid would scold me to slow down when I ate, but I tried to tell her why, she just shushed me and said she would take that way to walk to the market everyday and nothing happened to her. Adults never did understand, especially with something as serious as snakes.
It wasn't until we moved to the larger US Naval Air Station at Subic Bay that I began to learn how to make this dish. A few times during the summer, my father's sisters and their children would come to stay with us in our home in Subic Bay. I loved having a house full of family! We would play all day outside, where we would hike up into the "jungle", walk to the playgrounds with our "Ate" or "Kuya", while our mothers were at the market buying our dinner. At night, all the cousins would cram themselves into my large bedroom and we would put the mattresses on the floor and build a fort using the blankets and pillows. I remember one summer when my aunties brought a chicken from their home. Oh! We loved looking at it in its cage under the kitchen table. My mother would often bring home live birds. They never stayed around long. Being a child, you never really question too long on the reasons why and just accept that they either "died" or Mom let them go home. Except the day of the beloved chicken's demise.
There was a commotion in the kitchen one late morning that summer. We all ran down from my room upstairs and looked into the kitchen. There, my two aunts and my mom and the maid were trying to chase down the chicken, whose head was dangling on its neck, feathers flying everywhere and *gulp* blood on the floor and droplets of blood on the walls. The women were laughing and speaking in Tagalog, yelling at each other to catch the chicken. It was quite the sight! My cousins and I stood in the doorway, staring at them, because we didn't quite know what to make of the scene. The youngest ran away, the rest of us who were older, stood there, either with grins on our faces, or jumped in to try and grab the bird from getting away, while I stood and watched the poor thing flapping around confusedly. We didn't stay around too long and went outside to play. Feeling a little sad, I didn't understand and felt hurt that the women all were laughing and saying it was for dinner. And there it was, a few hours later for dinner as Chicken Tinola.
Chicken Tinola is the first Filipino dish I learned to cook. We had this dish at least once a week when I was growing up. It's a very simple dish that requires very few ingredients. My favorite was the green papaya. I loved to watch when it was cut open and the black pearl-like seeds were revealed. I learned later that handling the papaya too long with your bare hands would dry out the skin because of the enzymes in the fruit. Don't worry...it doesn't last long, and you can also use kitchen gloves to protect your hands. If green papaya is not available, you can use chayote as a substitute. Don't choose the sweeter orange papaya. The taste will not be the same. This dish is a true Filipino dish, not inspired by any other Asian dish. There are variations with pork but this is the original and more traditional recipe. The broth is flavored simply with thin slices of ginger root, onions and garlic, and the long simmer time allows the natural flavors of the chicken to develop. I don't always add the fish sauce because that is my preference; I will almost always flavor with sea salt only. The broth should be clear so make sure you skim the surface of the broth while the chicken cooks and don't use black pepper. You won't miss it because the hot pepper leaves give the soup just a touch of heat. You can find frozen blocks of sili (pepper) leaves at Filipino and Asian stores. If you can't find them, you can substitute with baby spinach leaves and throw in an Anaheim pepper. I learned that substitution from my Dad.
Saute the garlic, ginger, onion then add the chicken. Mix well and slightly brown the chicken pieces. add enough water to cover chicken and cook until chicken is cooked through…about 30 minutes.
Add the papaya and cook until it is soft. Season with patis. Add sili leaves at the last minute before serving.