This is Visayan â€œcomfort foodâ€ at its finest. The essence of this dish is burned into the memory banks of anyone who grew up in Cebu and the rest of the Visayas. As a kid, we used to visit our grandmother in Cebu and despite her being generous in every respect food wise, nearly every single meal served in her home included either a version of this utan (vegetable) dish or a soup with malunggay which has the same earthy taste, and I absolutely ABHORRED it at the time! But because we were showered with lechon, consilva (caramelized bananas), fruits, ice cream and broas (ladyfingers), you just had to grin and bear this soup/vegetable staple. Not to mention the gentle lecture on how nutritious it was and how brilliant our bodies would be if we consumed enough of it (she lived into her early 90â€™s)!
This dish was a fixture at her meals. It was used to â€œlubricateâ€ the rice and to soften the contents of your plate into a near porridge-y mush. The dominant flavor was that of the malunggay leaves that is earthy and pungent. Worse, if you are obsessing about it, the texture of the leaves is somewhat slimy as well. Recently, I have spent a lot of time in Cebu and have learned to appreciate this simple yet surprisingly complex dish now that I have passed the age of 40â€¦ I decided to set out to cook the mother of all utan recipes, and with the help of our cook, Jane, present here the most chi-chi version you will probably ever read aboutâ€¦ You see, utan is one of those dishes that every home has a version of and it is often highly dependent on what is in the larder, garden out back, or in the market. At its simplest, it is a broth flavored with dried or fresh fish, with some squash, beans, taro, and leafy green vegetables (malunggay essential).
For this utan experiment, I assembled the most number of ingredients I could get my hands on: kalabasa (squash), labong (bamboo shoots), gabi (taro), sitaw (yard long beans), okra, daing (dried fish), talong (eggplant), malunggay (horseradish tree leaves), green onions, alugbati (Malabar Nightshade), coconut milk and salt. The bamboo shoots were julienned and parboiled. Everything else was peeled or cleaned and cut into bite sized pieces. The malunggay was removed from their stems. To make, boil up some water and cook the squash until firm tender. Add the labong, gabi, sitaw, okra, and talong until just cooked. Add the dried fish, some rock salt and finally the malunggay, green onions and alugbati. Serve just a few minutes later piping hot. Cebuanos like to eat this with binlud or a mixture of ground corn and rice. Don’t leave the dried fish in there for too long or it will disintegrate.
It is hard to describe the flavor of this dish but once you have had the dish, you canâ€™t forget it. Some find it too earthy, bitterish and unpalatable. I find the squash sweetens it up and the taro thickens the broth while the dried fish taste is very noticeable. The malunggay can overwhelm so temper the amount if you like. Overall, for something that takes just minutes to prepare, it has a deep complex hearty and satisfying taste. I suppose you could also add some long green chilli and that would be a nice. It seems to go best with some fried fish and rice. While many would consider this a “common” dish, I am intrigued by all of the terrific vegetables that goes into it and the resulting dish that is clearly one of the â€œgood thingsâ€ home cooking has to offer in the Visayas.
Many folks have this dish just as I described it above. Or with varying degrees of vegetables that make it a humble broth to a fancy upgraded version in the photographs here. However, another simple provincial version adds some fresh coconut milk at the end to thicken the dish and make it nearly an â€œall-in-oneâ€ robust dish photographed here. The thickened soup seems to blend the flavors better and the mouthfeel is also slightly different with the addition of the coconut milk. While I have really rather taken a liking to this utan concoction, you can imagine the faces my daughter will make if I ask her to eat a bowl of itâ€¦ hmmm, maybe when she hits 40! Do any of you folks have interesting variations on this dish? I would be curious to hear about any versions you recall that are particularly delicious!