Why It Works
- Searing the chicken renders the fat and evenly browns the meat, deepening the flavors of the soup.
- Coconut water adds a subtle sweetness that complements the floral lemongrass and savory fish sauce.
Binakol―a brothy soup made with chicken, coconut water, tender young coconut meat, fresh moringa, lemongrass, and ginger―originates from the island of Panay, where I’m from, in the central Philippines. This aromatic soup has subtle sweet notes from the coconut, floral hints from the lemongrass, and is slightly bitter from the addition of moringa leaves (also known as the horseradish tree).
The word, binakol, is a Kiniray-a culinary term (a dialect indigenous to Panay) for cooking food inside a bamboo tube. (It’s also believed to be derived from bakol, a Hiligaynon word―a dialect spoken in the Western Visayas region― which means “to spank,” indicating that the chicken is literally spanked before it is cooked to improve its flavor. Trust me, no chickens were spanked when testing this recipe). Traditionally Darag, a native chicken known for its leaner texture and richer flavor, is used. The cut-up chicken is placed into hollowed-out bamboo tubes (a halved coconut shell may also be used) with coconut juice, coconut meat, green papaya, lemongrass, ginger, and moringa, or sometimes chile pepper, leaves, and cooked over an open fire which infuses the soup with a slightly smoky flavor. Chayote, a pale green fruit with a mildly sweet cucumber-like flavor, was introduced into the Filipino cuisine during Spanish colonization and often replaces the green papaya―a swap I’ve called for here.
Binakol is remarkably similar to tinola, a popular Filipino soup strewn with tender chicken and pungent ginger that relies on rice wash―the starchy water used to wash rice―or just plain water, instead of coconut water, as the liquid. Other versions of tinola add carrots, potatoes, or a souring agent, such as unripe tamarind, batwan (an astringent-tasting fruit that resembles a green tomato), or bilimbi (a green sour fruit).
My recipe is an interpretation of binakol, altered to accommodate availability of certain ingredients in the US while maintaining the basic flavor profile. First, I do without the bamboo tubes and open fire and cook the ingredients in a Dutch oven on the stovetop, streamlining its preparation. I use toasted shredded unsweetened coconut, instead of fresh coconut meat, to boost the coconut flavor. I mix in spinach, rather than moringa, to replicate its slightly bitter taste. (While moringa is available in powder, frozen, or dried forms in most Asian and Filipino markets, it doesn’t deliver the same grassy, peppery flavor as fresh leaves). Lastly, I smash lemongrass stalks, rather than chop them, to tone down their citrusy flavor.
Served by itself or alongside cooked white rice, a bowl of steaming binakol is perfect for when it’s cold outside, although Filipinos tend to enjoy it year-round. I encourage you to help yourself to a bowl, in any weather.
- 1 1/4 cups (3 1/2 ounces; 100g) shredded unsweetened coconut
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) canola or other neutral oil
- 8 chicken drumsticks (about 2 1/2 pounds; 1.1kg), patted dry with paper towels
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 14 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 medium white onion (about 3 ounces; 85g), thinly sliced
- 8 1/2 cups (2L) unsweetened coconut water, such as Harmless Harvest
- 4 cups (0.9L) homemade or store-bought chicken stock
- 4 stalks lemongrass (7 ounces; 200g), bottoms smashed under the flat side of a knife
- Four 3-inch knobs fresh ginger (70g), quartered
- 1 scallion, ends trimmed and sliced thinly on a bias for garnish, trimmings reserved
- 2 chayote squash (about 14 ounces; 400g), peeled, quartered, seeded, and thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons (30ml) fish sauce
- Kosher salt
- 8 ounces (225g) fresh spinach, rinsed
Adjust oven rack to top position and preheat to 375°F (190°C). Spread coconut on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake, shaking pan occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Transfer toasted coconut to a small bowl; set aside.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with paper towels. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Season chicken all over with salt and pepper and add to Dutch oven. Cook, turning occasionally, until chicken is well browned on all sides, about 12 minutes. Transfer chicken to prepared baking sheet and set aside.
Add garlic and onion to now-empty Dutch oven and cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly browned and onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add coconut water, chicken stock, lemongrass, ginger, and scallion trimmings, along with reserved chicken and 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons reserved toasted coconut. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 15 minutes, then lower heat to maintain a steady simmer.
Add chayote, cover, and cook until chayote and chicken are cooked through and tender, about 20 minutes. Discard lemongrass, ginger, and scallion trimmings. Add fish sauce and season with salt to taste.
Add spinach, cover, and cook until soft, 3 to 5 minutes.
To serve, divide chicken between soup bowls. Top with chayote and spinach. Ladle broth on top, garnish with scallions and remaining toasted coconut, and serve.
Large Dutch oven, rimmed baking sheets
Make-Ahead and Storage
Binakol can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days. To reheat, microwave or warm on the stovetop until hot.