Tinola: Filipino Chicken Soup

As new parents, the wife and I have received some child-rearing tips from, oh, just about everyone we know. I’m not saying we’re not appreciative of such tips, but some of these pointers have been downright unusual. Not surprisingly, the strangest pointers have come from my own mother:

  • “Make sure you massage his head so it will stay round.”
  • “You should leave the lights on at night when he sleeps, so he gets used to it.”

I know I’m new to this whole parenting thing, but I’m perfectly satisfied with the current roundness of my kid’s head, and leaving the lights on at night just makes no sense to me. Ironically enough, I can rest a beer on my own head because it’s so flat, and I’m nocturnal. Strange, that.

So despite my mother’s good intentions (at least I think her intentions are good), I’ve pretty much ignored her “sage” advice. However, there was one nugget of knowledge that spilled from my mother’s mouth that did kinda sorta make sense: “Tinola is good for increasing breast milk production.”

“I can produce breast milk?” I asked my mom.

“Not you, your wife!” she corrected me.

I told you, I’m new to this.

Anyways, Tinola is a simple-to-make rustic Filipino chicken soup. Like the chicken soups of most other cultures, Tinola is also known for its healing and restorative powers–helping to recover from cold and flu symptoms–this much I knew. But I had never before heard that Tinola was also good for nursing and feeding newborns.

So I wasn’t sure if my mother was just perpetuating some old
Filipino wives’ tale, or if Tinola indeed possessed any lactic magic (I’m very pleased with myself that I came up with that rhyme).
But if cooking a pot of Tinola would make things easier for my wife,
and indirectly get some Filipino food into my kid, I was all for it.

A bowl of Lactic Magic?

Besides chicken, chili leaves also play a vital role in a good Tinola. Chili leaves are exactly what they sound like, the leaves from a chili pepper plant. Despite their origins, chili leaves are not at all spicy, though they do lend a slightly bitter flavor to the dish. You can find frozen chili leaves at the Asian market (sometimes labeled as “Dahon ng Sili”), but fresh chili leaves are always best. If you happen to grow any thai birds, or jalapenos, or the like, you can use the leaves from your own chili plant. Or, if you are like me, you may have a favorite purveyor of chili peppers at your local farmer’s market. If so, then just ask your chili guy (or gal) to bring in some fresh chili leaves for you–you might get a funny look, but getting fresh chili leaves is well worth it. Leaves from the moringa tree (AKA mulunggay leaves) can also be used in place of chili leaves, but I prefer chili leaves.

Green papaya is another key ingredient in Tinola. Besides adding texture and color to the Tinola, green papaya may also help in keeping the chicken tender as the unripened fruit contains the meat-tenderizing enzyme known as papain. Green papaya contain a higher amount of papain than ripe papaya. Fresh green papaya can be found at Asian markets, though Chayote squash is also a suitable substitute (though chayote lacks any meat tenderizing properties).

Other ingredients in Tinola include ginger (I like loads of ginger in my Tinola), garlic and onion if you like (I do), and fish sauce (again, I like loads of fish sauce in my Tinola). Lastly, I also like the addition of lemongrass in Tinola (my chili guy had some fresh lemongrass in addition to the chili leaves), though my mother’s version of Filipino chicken soup does not have any lemongrass.

As far as my mother’s Tinola claim goes, my wife suspects there may be some truth to it–after one post-Tinola feeding, our newborn has grown to the size of Spud Webb and can now speak fluent Ilocano and Tagalog. Impressive. Much better than having a block head or roaming about at night like El Chupacabra.


Milky way, indeed.

Tinola: Filipino Chicken Soup

Makes 6-8 servings

1 tablespoon oil
1 onion, diced
1 stalk lemongrass, outermost leaves removed and bottom 6 inches (the white part) minced finely
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-inches fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 whole chicken (4-5 lbs.), cut into serving pieces
3 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more to taste
8 cups water
1 green papaya, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1-2 cups chili leaves, picked from stems and rinsed

Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions to the pot and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass, garlic, and ginger and cook another 30 seconds.

Add the chicken pieces and fish sauce to the pot, stir and cook for 1-2 minutes until chicken is coated in oil (you don’t have to brown the chicken). Add the water to the pot, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the papaya, and continue simmering until papaya is tender, 10-15 minutes.

Taste the soup for seasoning, and add more fish sauce if needed. Salt can also be used at this point as well.

Remove the pot from the heat, add the chili leaves and stir. Cover the pot for 3-5 minutes, or until the chili leaves wilt. Serve with white rice (I like to put a scoop of rice in my soup bowl).

  • Erika September 14, 2009, 7:06 pm

    Love your phrase “lactic magic” you are so funny!
    More advice for you- beware of eating garlic and onions when nursing. My experience (and I have heard others say this) that it can make the baby very upset and gassy.

  • Tiffany September 14, 2009, 7:07 pm

    Its the malunggay leaves that help in the production of beast milk.

  • jenn September 14, 2009, 7:31 pm

    I’ve heard those tips, too. I think the massaging of the head is because some times when the baby comes out it’s head gets a bit misshapen it’s still soft.
    I love tinola. I actually had some the other day. Probably one of my favorite of pinoy dishes.

  • Burnt Lumpia September 14, 2009, 8:10 pm

    Thanks Erika. I’ve heard the garlic and onions thing too, but our little guy seems to react just fine to them. And besides, my Tinola is full of garlic and onions;)
    Hi Tiffany. My mother didn’t mention the malunggay leaves, but after doing an internet search, I think you’re right. Damn. I’m an idiot. Maybe I’ll have to make another batch with malunggay.
    Hi Jenn. I’ve heard the same thing about massaging misshapen heads, but our baby’s head is pretty round believe it or not, so massaging a round head would make it less round, I think. Tinola is one of my favorites as well;)

  • Leica September 14, 2009, 9:09 pm

    There are actually malunggay tablets for sale here in the Philippines, meant to produce more milk.
    Congratulations on your new baby!
    Did you get any sleep since he arrived? :-)

  • Theda September 14, 2009, 10:15 pm

    Chicken tinola ‘fed my breasts’! I visited the PI with my then 7-month old and my cousin fed me chicken tinola with either malunggay or chili leaves during my stay (I liked the malunggay since it’s a superfood).
    I really should have eaten tinola throughout my daughter’s first year — I’m going to make it to 12 months of breastfeeding, but the supply is definitely waning.
    Some additions to this old wives tale: no sour foods like sinigang and stick to chicken and seafood.

  • joey September 15, 2009, 2:06 am

    Yup it’s the malunggay leaves that provide lactic magic! They are all the rage among mum’s here (old wives or not!)…my cosuin in Spain had me send her the malunggay pills when she was breast-feeding. Let me know if you want me to send you guys some! :)
    Tinola is fabulous either way :) I like mine with both chili leaves and malunggay, and green papaya (not sayote), lot’s of ginger too! There is a soup similar to tinola called binakol from the Visayas that has the addition of lemongrass and is cooked with coconut water (and some of the young coconut meat)…unbelievably good!

  • jean September 15, 2009, 5:27 am

    I’m making this for dinner. Thanks, Marvin! I hope Baby Lumpia is giving both you and the Mrs. some sleep, although it’s probably not happening yet. As the mom of a six month-old, I’m here to tell you that it gets a lot easier. And yes, my cousins keep telling me to keep shifting my baby Belgipino’s (daddy’s of Belgian heritage and I’m…you get it…)head while he sleeps. Like that’s gonna happen!!! Much like rotating tires, I guess. 😉

  • Lorena September 15, 2009, 9:01 am

    I literally laughed out loud when I read your baby could now speak fluent Ilocano and Tagalog! Good to know that tinola is good for Mrs. Lumpia and Baby Lumpia. I’m thinking some chicken-less tinola might be on the menu here in a month or so, especially since San Diego’s going to have a rainy El Nino winter!

  • Cynthia September 15, 2009, 8:04 pm

    I have so missed your sense of humour! Congratulations to you and the wife. I take it that all is well with Baby Lumpia?

  • Jan Marc Q. September 15, 2009, 8:22 pm

    Congrats on Fatherhood! coworker intro’d me to your blog. It’s a great read. Thanks again.

  • katalina September 15, 2009, 10:33 pm

    Hail the TINOLA!=)
    It’s pretty much raining here in the Philippines the last two weeks and tinola soup comforts us with the cold weather. You have covered all the basics as well as the good substitutes.
    Personally, I alternate malunggay and dahon ng sili. I have a friend who fries the chicken from day-old tinola (she discards the soup and the vegetables) and surprisingly, it taste good. Gingery and salty.=) We pair tinola in our house with anything fried, fish or even hotdogs hahaha!=) And of course rice.
    The malunggay does the trick for this “lactic magic”. I haven’t been pregnant yet but my friends who did swear by malunggay. Other “lactic magics” are beef and halaan (clam. You can alternate tinola with halaan soup.=)
    Oh and my I suggest one more thing. Try cooking tinola with pork spareribs. It’s divine.=)

  • Erin September 16, 2009, 9:46 am

    The recipe sounds great, but you lost me on “lactic magic”. You certainly weave a wonderful picture.
    Hope your wife and Baby Lumpia are doing well.

  • Julie September 18, 2009, 8:17 am

    Hooray for round-headed babies! Like Charlie Brown, but to scale. 😉
    Tinola–that’s some comfort food right there. Yum.

  • ahnjel September 18, 2009, 10:51 pm

    so nice that the wife is doing well. and i was fed a lot of tinola during my breast feeding frenzy with my kids, also one that helps make a lot of milk are clams! it works! me as the living proof, hehe my aunt-in-law told me about it and it did help during those dry days.
    damn it marvin! reading your tinola post made me hungry! and im on a diet to >3< i love using chili leaves and papaya as well! maybe ill try adding some lemongrass too, i get a very fresh supply from my cambodian neighbor who has his own plant!

  • Caroline September 18, 2009, 11:18 pm

    Lactic Magic is right! For all my 3 births, my family came to the hospital to welcome the babies with tinola. Now it’s my kids’ most requested ulam.
    I love your addition of lemongrass, will have to try that. I usually just have kalamansi & patis as sawsawan on the side. :)
    Glad to see your family is doing well.

  • Lori Lynn @ Taste With The Eyes September 19, 2009, 3:16 pm

    I hope he inherits your sense of humor.
    The soup looks awesome.

  • Alisa@Foodista September 20, 2009, 12:52 am

    Love this post!Yep, it’s the malunggay leaves that help make milk.Every meal I’ve had during my first few months included these magic leaves.Congratulations too for being the featured foodblog of the day over at Foodista!

  • Ed B. September 22, 2009, 5:02 am

    Shellfish are also good for milk production, particularly halaan (clams).
    Aside from lemongrass you can also use sinigang mix with your tinola to turn it into sinampalukang manok. :-)

  • Heather September 22, 2009, 6:15 am

    This soup is amazing! I made it last night. The only thing I did differently was to brown the chicken a little first in some oil, then I took the chicken out and put the onion in the drippings. After onion softened for 5 minutes I added the garlic and lemongrass. Chicken went back into the pot with the fish sauce and I followed the rest of the recipe as written. Also had to use frozen chili leaves. Recipe was perfectly salted without extra salt. The first bite I took, it felt so comforting. I love this even more than Chicken noodle soup. Am letting my filipino friends sample this as well. Amazing!

  • Pat September 22, 2009, 9:59 pm

    my oh my..
    i love tinola and now i craving for it..
    goodluck with the kid!!

  • Leela@SheSimmers September 23, 2009, 9:37 am

    Very entertaining post. :)
    I’m not familiar with Tinola, so this is very enlightening. Now I know one more cool way to use green papaya. Sweet.

  • tsurara September 25, 2009, 7:02 pm

    New reader here!! My mom has been making this dish, but rather than using chicken and the chili leaves, she uses mussels and spinach XD; It’s really a really good substitution though! She used to make it whenever I got sick, and oh boy does it help me get better =DD But thank you for posting this…even though my mom makes it, she didn’t know what it was called XDD! And neither did I! =D

  • Mark Manguerra September 27, 2009, 10:21 pm

    Marvin, I know it’s pretty hard to top your humor with every post, but this may be the funniest yet. But yeah, it’s malunggay that stimulates lactation allegedly. (But I’ve grown up used to chili leaves.) Great comfort soup!

  • Burnt Lumpia October 2, 2009, 9:35 am

    Malunggay tablets, Leica? If their in tablet form, then they must work! And sleep has been hard to come by, but it’s been worth it.
    Thanks very much for the extra wives tales, Theda. I always like hearing them, even though I may not agree with them;)
    Hi joey. I’ve heard of binakol before, but never really knew what it was. It sounds tasty though! And thanks for offering to send us some pills, but I think we’re good for now;)
    Hi Jean. We’ve been shifting our babies head too;) And congrats on your little Belgipino!
    Hi Lorena. Chicken-less tinola? You’re vegetarian if I remember correctly. I definitely do need to look into some Filipino vegetarian dishes.
    Thanks so much, Cynthia. And yes, all is well with baby lumpia.
    Thanks Jan Marc Q. I hope you keep reading and commenting. Thanks for visiting.
    Hi Katalina. If there’s ever any leftovers, I’ll have to try frying the chicken. Mmmm, and pork in tinola sounds good too.
    I knew I’d lose at least one, Erin;)
    Hooray, Julie! Yes, round is important, but to scale even more so;)
    Hi ahnjel! I’ll definitely tell the wife to try eating clams too. And I love the lemongrass in my tinola.
    Hi Caroline. I forgot to mention the patis on the side, but yes, I love that as sawsawan as well.
    Believe it or not, Lori Lynn, my wife is twice as hillarious as I am. So odds are good that the little one will have some sort of sense of humor.
    Thanks for putting me up on Foodista, Alisa!
    Hey there, Ed! Sinigang mix seems to be good in everything;)
    I’m glad you were able to make the recipe, Heather. So happy that it turned out well for you!
    Thanks Pat!
    Thanks Leela. I definitely love the green papaya in this soup rather than chayote.
    Hi tsurara! I love when new readers leave comments! I’m also glad I could help you and your mom in identifying the soup.
    Hey Mark. This is funnier than my mandoline post? Eh, they’re all lackluster to me:P.

  • wasabi prime October 4, 2009, 12:40 pm

    Your posts always make me laugh. And I love the recipe for this — I think it could easily create lactic magic for anyone, it looks so good. Perfect timing for a recipe like this, as we just turned on the furnace. Fall/Winter is officially here!

  • knorr philippines October 7, 2009, 11:28 pm

    It’s my favorite dish,i put some knorr cubes on it when i cook this tinolang manok.

  • Mel @ bouchonfor2.com October 8, 2009, 12:47 am

    The soup looks super yummy :)
    I laughed to read the head comment. My parents used to rotate my head while I slept to ensure I don’t get a “flat spot”… haha Asian parents. I think my head is pretty round… 😐

  • u8mypinkcookies December 25, 2009, 9:29 pm

    one of my faves.. esp. when mom prepares it on rainy days. so comforting!

  • Marie April 20, 2010, 2:44 am

    i miss this dish tinolang manok

  • Natural Ease July 25, 2010, 11:57 pm

    You can add fresh Moringa leaves in the soup. It is healthy for nursing mother and baby. I always buy fresh moringa leaf in 99 Ranch market in California. My girls love it.

  • Joy December 7, 2010, 9:19 am

    thanks for the laughter. i’ve recently discovered your blog and its hilarious coz it takes me back to my childhood. yes the tinola is the ultimate medicinal food, specially for those in need of “lactic magic.” flu, cough, cold, etc. ginger, chicken and malunggay is the holy triage!

  • Engr. Ramos, Rowel S. February 19, 2011, 12:18 am

    I think, it would be better if your going to discuss about some exotic food from the philippines….

  • rdsean October 10, 2011, 2:36 am

    i was browsing the net about this food and it got me here.. it’s really one of my fave Filipino dish.. 😉


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