Across the 7,000 islands that comprise the Philippines, there are almost as many ways to make binakol na manok—a brothy, rich chicken soup suffused with coconut, ginger and lemon grass—including simmering it over a fire inside hollow shafts of bamboo.
In the Western Visayas islands, where the dish originated, the ends of the bamboo tube are stuffed with lemon grass, then covered with banana leaves to seal the ingredients inside. Cooked for about an hour over medium-hot coals, the chicken tenderizes and soaks up the tropical aromas.
Cooking inside bamboo may not be practical for most home cooks in the U.S., but binakol na manok still has plenty to teach us about how to balance bright and rich flavors in a simple, but deeply delicious soup.
To start, the main cooking liquid is coconut water, which lends a tropical aroma and gentle sweetness without the heft of creamy coconut milk. The natural sugars of coconut water also help balance the pronounced brininess of patis, a fermented fish sauce that distinguishes Filipino cuisine from its soy sauce-loving neighbors in East Asia.
We loved the interplay of sweet and salty, bright and funky. Some traditional ingredients can be hard to source in the U.S., but we found some easy substitutions that still delivered wonderful results. Most recipes call for the tender meat of young coconuts. The mature coconuts more common here aren’t a good substitute. But we found we could plump large, unsweetened coconut flakes in the broth for a satisfying chew.
Patis often is used to season the chicken in place of salt, so we added the chicken to the pot with a bit of fish sauce. Many versions include both green papaya and chayote squash, a bumpy green gourd common in Mexican and Louisiana cooking. We doubled down on the easier-to-find squash since it soaks up flavor like the papaya.
Wilted baby spinach stood in for chili leaves, and we opted for sliced serrano chilies as a garnish for customizable heat. The result was a rich and hearty chicken soup with a pleasing, tropical flavor.