Nilaga means boiled or stewed. Taken literally, this makes every boiled dish in the Filipino canon nilaga. This is why some people consider chicken tinola as nilagang manok: because it’s chicken boiled in ginger broth. Salabat, or boiled ginger tea, is nilagang luya. Bulalo is technically nilaga, too—just don't call it nilagang baka.
Most home cooks don’t bother with all of that. They understand nilaga as a simple soup that happily adapts to what you have on hand. It comes to the dinner table following a template: either beef, pork, or chicken boiled in water, seasoned with salt, and finished with hearty vegetables.
How to get a clear soup
To get nilaga with a crystal-clear soup, you need to soak and parboil your beef.
- Before cooking, soak your beef in a large bowl of water. Let soak for 1 hour, changing the water 1–2 times when it gets cloudy. This removes impurities like blood and coagulated proteins from the beef.
- Parboiling your beef means to quickly boil your beef on high with a minimal amount of water. This flushes out any remaining scum and impurities that will cloud your soup.
What makes a soup cloudy?
The gray stuff that clouds your soup are denatured proteins in the meat. You’ll often see it bubble up to the surface as gray, frothy scum.
Is cloudy soup a bad thing?
Not really! Clear soup is mostly for aesthetics—your nilaga looks more appetizing when you can see all the meat and vegetables. A cloudy soup doesn’t look as great, but those impurities floating around won’t affect the flavor of your nilaga. If it tastes good, you’re good!
Cook the vegetables last
Beef takes hours to cook to the right tenderness. Vegetables need only a few minutes.
To maintain crunch and structure in your vegetables, cook them after your beef is done. Not at the same time as your beef, unless you like vegetable mush in your nilaga. Save the veg for last!
Cody has a trick for crisp-tender cabbage, which tends to wilt in the soup: Cut your whole cabbage into thick quarters, and cook them right before serving. Place the wedges cut-side down over your nilaga, but don’t stir them in. The steam rising from the hot soup will gently cook the cabbage while keeping some crunch.
- 1 kg beef short ribs or kaldereta cut
- 8 cups of water, more as needed
- 1 onion, sliced into quarters
- 1 tbsp black peppercorns
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp patis or fish sauce
- 1–2 cobs fresh corn, husked and sliced
- 2 saba bananas, peeled and halved
- 1 whole cabbage, sliced into thick quarters
- 12–16 pcs Baguio or French beans, ends trimmed
- steamed rice
- patis or fish sauce
Prepare beef: Add beef in a large bowl. Add enough water to cover, and let meat soak for at least 1 hour, changing the water 1–2 times.
Parboil beef: Drain beef and transfer to a large pot or Dutch oven. Add enough water to just barely cover the beef. Bring water to a boil over high heat. Let boil to release any remaining impurities, about 3 minutes. Drain beef in a colander over the sink and rinse off any residue. Give the pot a quick rinse as well, then return beef to the pot.
Simmer beef: Add enough water to cover the beef, about 8 cups. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, add onion and black peppercorns to the soup. Reduce heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Cover pot and let beef simmer until fork-tender, at least 3 hours. Season with salt and fish sauce, adding more to taste.
Cook vegetables: Add corn, saba bananas, and green beans to the soup. Cook until corn and beans are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add the cabbage last, placing the wedges on top of the soup. Let cabbage steam on top of the soup until softened but still crunchy, about 2 minutes.
Serve: Transfer nilaga to a serving bowl. Serve hot with steamed rice, patis, and calamansi. To store leftovers, let nilaga cool to room temperature and refrigerate in an airtight container for a few days.