I wanted to offer a recipe that you might already have in your pantry; something you can fold into the dinners you’re already planning to cook this week. You know, just to change things up a little, but not totally rewrite your whole life. These are the meals that I have cooked for my family at home to the best of my ability during the past five years—recreated in recipe form. We already ate it and for the most part, enjoyed it. I hope you will too.

When I was in high school, my family owned a small Filipino grocery store in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. I was the classic angsty help, wearing my backwards Bulls snapback with obnoxiously long bangs (obvs), killing time playing Mario Kart while eating dried jackfruit and Clover barbecue chips with chopsticks so my fingers wouldn’t get sticky. This was pre-internet folks, when you were bored—you were really bored.

Meanwhile, my mom would be in the back preparing vacuum packed daeng bangus (garlicky marinated milkfish), pancit (stir-fried rice noodles with carrots, celery, onions, and pork) and embutido (a rolled and stuffed meatloaf with hardboiled eggs and raisins) for the after-work rush. I never really thought that we operated a restaurant, but looking back, I think it normalized being surrounded by food.

At closing time, I’d blast a Fugees CD, mop the floor, count money, get sugar highs off of halo-halo jellies, and pull the wilting produce to bring home for dinner. Some nights we brought home unsold packs of barbecue pork sticks with a plastic ramekin of my mom’s sawsawan, a dipping sauce primarily made with vinegar, soy sauce, and onions. The sourness punches the tongue’s taste buds near the back of your cheeks and cuts though rich and bold flavors.

Here in Seattle, I used to stop in for lunch at the now shuttered Ludi’s, a no-nonsense Filipino diner and bar. I always ordered the #13 silog combo; sometimes I’d ask for a lil’ nip of whiskey in my black coffee. Sometimes the owner, Tito (uncle) Gregorio, would slide a little bowl of corned beef my way with a squirt bottle of their sawsawan sauce, a version made with big chunks of red onions, whole Thai chili peppers, and cane vinegar. I’d like to think he peered into my soul knowing I needed a reminder of home to fill a small void in my heart, but I’m pretty sure it was because I looked pretty haggard from drinking the night before.

Making sawsawan at home today, I keep it pretty simple. We eat it so often, my wife and son just call it “the sauce.” I love the always-in-the-pantry aspect of it; additions like chopped onions, scallions, spicy chilies or cherry tomatoes are also great, but not necessary. There’s nothing in there that really spoils; you can keep it in the fridge for a few days, but I prefer to serve it at room temperature. We make a fresh batch whenever dinner calls for it. Use what you have in the pantry already, then explore your local Asian market to discover your family’s favorite balance of vinegars, soy sauce brands, and accents.

Taghap Family Sawsawan

Active time: A few minutes
Total time: Same
Serves: A family of three for use with one main dish

  • 3 shakes or ¼ tsp Tabasco
  • ½ cup vinegar, Datu Puti cane or Heinz white distilled 
  • ¼ cup soy sauce (We switch between Datu Puti or Yamasa usukuchi, a light Japanese soy sauce.)
  • ¼  tsp freshly cracked black pepper
  •  tsp or a small shake of onion powder

Mix it all together. Taste and adjust. Serve in a little bowl with a lip for dipping or pouring.

Sawsawan + #HellaRice, 4 Ways

This easy dipping vinegar goes great with…

  1. Grilled steak. A vinegar-forward sauce can balance the bitterness of lightly charred foods. If it’s a fatty cut of meat like a rib eye, the vinegar will cut through the richness too. Variation: add sliced green onions and slices of spicy pepper like serrano or habanero.
  2. A can of corned beef. Quick recipe: Heat half a diced onion and two minced garlic cloves with a touch of neutral oil in a nonstick pan for four minutes until barely soft. Add the corned beef and flatten with a wooden spoon. Cook until edges are crispity crunchy. Crack three eggs on top and broil until the whites have set. Adding quartered cherry tomatoes makes this combo a banger.
  3. Steamed salmon. Go beyond parsley and a squeeze of fresh lemon. A calamansi-flavored soy sauce (toyomansi) can add a little extra citrus flavor that’s equal parts familiar and exciting. A grip of cilantro leaves and slivers of shallot can add extra freshness and crunch.
  4. A super ripe heirloom tomato. Sawsawan, rice, and heirloom tomato was one of the only things my wife craved during her pregnancy with my son. It’s a memory that always rushes to my mind as he now feeds himself scoops of saucy rice.
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