The true soup for the soul is our native chicken binakol

But not all chicken are created equal. For binakol lovers, it has to be Darag, the Philippine native chicken strain indigenous to the Western Visayas

By C. Horatius Mosquera

NOT TINOLA Chicken Binakol (Photo by Hazel Viz)

By all means fowl, it is said that chicken soup is good for the soul. If so, then we Filipinos have it better, because we have chicken binakol, a soup-based chicken dish made with ingredients coming from the “tree of life”—the coconut.

Chicken binakol is popular among the Ilonggos and Batanguenos. Its origins, however, can be traced to the hinterlands of Panay Island in the Western Visayas. Basically chicken with vegetables, the addition of fresh coconut meat and stewing it in coconut water make binakol unique with its sweet savory broth. Because it is made from the simplest of ingredients, the dish can be enjoyed all year round. On balmy days, it is invigorating. When the days are nippy, it can be comforting.

If you think that all chicken are created equal, think again.  For binakol lovers, the choice has to be native chicken. This means using chicken that the locals call bisaya, or Darag, the Philippine native chicken strain indigenous to, and most dominant in, the Western Visayas as classified in the Domestic Animal Diversity Information System of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The Darag is believed to have evolved from the Red Jungle Fowl.

Raised with no antibiotics or hormones, the Darag contains less fat, is high in protein, rich in potassium, and has unsaturated fatty acids, according to a study by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute. It is also preferred because of its lean meat, and distinctive taste. Researchers from the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food have confirmed that since native chicken tend to be free-range, its muscles are better developed, which gives firmer texture and stronger flavor. More exposure to the sun apparently also makes the chicken absorb more vitamin D in their bodies and their eggs.

DARAG Philippine native chickens

In the traditional way of cooking binakol, chicken is cut into pieces, and lightly whacked with a few strokes of the dull side of the knife to tenderize the meat. This is how the dish got the name “binakol,” which references the verb “bakol” in the Hiligaynon language (also known as Ilonggo), which in turn means “to spank” in English. The “spanking” lets the meat better absorb the coconut water in which it is stewed. 

Binakol references the Hiligaynon verb bakol, which means ‘to spank’ in English, and that is why binakol is a spanking good chicken dish.

In addition to the chicken, fresh coconut water is an important ingredient. Not only is it naturally refreshing, it also adds a subtle sweetness and glutinous quality to the mix, which helps build umami, making the binakol richer in both aroma and flavor. Medical journals have long pointed out that it is a source of healthy electrolytes while being fat-free and low in cholesterol.

Aside from chicken, the other white meat abundant in binakol is coconut meat. This is a healthy plant-based protein, with beneficial medium-chain fatty acids, which means no cholesterol problems. Coconut meat is also packed with fiber, which helps in appetite and digestion. Lastly, coconut meat has minerals like folate, manganese, copper, and potassium, which are good for the body.

In the days of old, chicken binakol was prepared in a freshly-cut bamboo tube over red-hot coals. This was especially true in the remote inland areas of Panay Island, where locals had to make do with what was readily accessible and provided by nature. The cut chicken, freshly-sliced coconut meat, sliced tomatoes, chopped onions, chopped garlic, chopped spring onions, and tanglad (lemongrass) would typically be mixed together with fresh coconut water in a node of bamboo and cooked close to an hour. Cooking does not get any simpler, or easier, than this.

Tradition, however, has given way to the modern as cooking in a bamboo tube is not necessarily practical. And while steel pots and pans take away the curiosity and the novelty of cooking in a bamboo tube, it is possible to get the same essence by placing cut bamboo or banana leaves in the pots and pans when cooking chicken binakol.   

Chicken binakol—not only is it good for your soul, it certainly adds life to eating. And it certainly makes for one spanking good chicken dish!