From Balmy Singapore To Italy's Verdant Farmlands, Nothing Comforts And Delights Like Chicken Soup
For millenniums, the chicken soup’s reputation as an elixir has been a shared prescription across myriad cultures around the globe. But while we can all agree that it is the ubiquitous culinary equivalent of a warm hug on a cold, rainy day, it would be decidedly imprudent to assume that the preferred dish revolves around a single recipe. One that starts with a mirepoix of root vegetables and onions might be the first to come to mind if you grew up somewhere west of the prime meridian.
While those with a fondness for Cantonese fare would insist on a bowl of double-boiled black chicken soup, especially if you are feeling a little under the weather. The latter is said to be rich in antioxidants, though there is also much to be savoured in a more indulgent alternative—one that uses instead GG French chickens that are famously flavourful and free from antibiotics and chemical growth promoters. Besides, much of the chicken soup’s effectiveness, I feel, lies simply in the fact that it is at once comforting and delicious.
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One such example is a rendition that combines a signature dish of Mok Kit Keung, the executive chef at Shangri-La Singapore’s Shang Palace, with a Cantonese classic. In a nod of sorts to his well-loved dish of bone-less quail filled with bird’s nest in supreme broth, the ever-creative chef decided to fill a deboned leg of the afore-mentioned organic chicken variety with the makings of the traditional Buddha Jumps Over the Wall. Prized ingredients, such as Japanese sea cucumber, abalone, deer sinew and fish maw, are first packed inside the chicken leg and steamed for an hour.
The mulligatawny is not Eurasian per se, but more of an Anglo-Indian soup that came out of British India during the British occupation
“The filled chicken leg is then doubled-boiled with bird’s nest, supreme broth and dendrobium flowers for 45 minutes,” he explains, noting as well how the preparation of the lush yet soothing broth it is served in is an equally laborious task that requires chicken, pork and Jin-hua ham to be cooked in French mineral water for eight hours. To further elevate the dish’s flavour profile and aromatics, fragrant Wu Jia Pi Chinese herbal wine is added just before serving.
A seasoned champion of Singapore heritage cuisines, chef Damian D’Silva of restaurant Kin is especially familiar with the universal appeal of the chicken soup, a dish he describes as essential soul food. “It’s one of the simplest and most versatile dishes,” affirms D’Silva, who is quick to point out how it is also a great example of how food transcends cultures. Each variation, he clarifies, shares similarities but bears marks of its cultural inflections. “The mulligatawny is not Eurasian per se, but more of an Anglo-Indian soup that came out of British India during the British occupation,” he cites. During their occupation of India, he explains, the British began to crave comforting and familiar dishes that reminded them of home. “So Indian cooks took elements of British cuisine and combined it with Indian spices and a variety of other ingredients to create a light and balanced soup that was neutral enough for British taste buds.” The British loved it so much, they brought it with them to Southeast Asia and, eventually, back with them to England.
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Its name roughly translates to mean “pepper water”, in reference to the addition of peppercorns, which, D’Silva notes were meant to cool the body in hot climates. Truth is, the dish doesn’t actually taste strongly of pepper. It doesn’t strongly resemble any Indian dish either and is fairly neutral in taste. It may not look it, but he also describes the dish as a light and clean tasting broth that you might have when unwell. Today, there are several ver-sions that are either more Western or Asian. And that is to be expected from a dish he declares as “one of the earliest examples of fusion food, and perfectly demonstrates the cross-cultural influences present in food”. Not surprisingly, the mulligatawny is also very similar in appearance to soto ayam, a popular Malay dish that originated in Indonesia. D’Silva explains that the dishes employ similar ingredients and are yellow in colour due to the use of turmeric. Both are served with shredded chicken but could not be further in taste. He notes that the rempah for mulligatawny is first fried, while in soto ayam, the paste is boiled together with chicken bones for hours, giving the latter a more powerful and complex flavour profile. According to D’Silva, soups were not commonly found in traditional Malay cuisine, despite their popularity in Indonesia. “Rather, it’s something they’ve adapted from the Chinese more recently,” he asserts.
Growing up, chicken soups were not commonplace at the dining table of D’Silva’s Eurasian-Peranakan household, but the one the family regularly craves is “Mum’s soto ayam”, which is based on a close family friend Aunty Zainab’s recipe. The family always had it with bee hoon and yellow noodles or sometimes rice, but never ketupat—even though that is how it is customarily eaten in Indonesia. Across the proverbial pond, Zafferano’s head chef Andrea De Paola grew up with a similarly heart-warming variation of the chicken soup. A staple of the family’s winter repertoire, this recipe balances an intensely flavoured clear broth with the sharp savouriness of parmesan-filled tortellini and shredded chicken.
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He recalls having this dish for the first time and fall-ing in love with it as an 11-year-old boy when his pater-nal aunt prepared it during the winter holiday. It is not surprisingly a recipe that’s close to De Paola’s heart and one that he was eager to share. Just to be sure, though, he phoned his aunt for it. He estimates the recipe to be at least 70 years old, passed down from his paternal grand-mother, who used to run a restaurant in Basilicata, serving traditional southern Italian dishes, including a variation of this chicken soup.
He explains how a whole chicken is first seasoned with salt, pepper and bay leaves, and then roasted with onions but without any oil; this process, he clarifies, helps to re-move excess fat. The chicken and onions are then cooked in a pot of water over extremely low heat for three to four hours to extract as much flavour as possible. Like it is with many Chinese chicken soup recipes, the flavours are also bolder because mature hens are preferred for their stronger essence.
Interestingly, as traditional as the dish is, it speaks to the necessary evolution and cross-regional influences. The recipe for the chicken soup originated in the south where De Paola’s grandmother is from. But it was only after his aunt had moved north to Emilia-Romagna—the home of parmesan cheese and where tortellini are believed to have originated—that she was inspired to in-corporate said petit parcels of pasta filled with piquant cheese to the dish. This is often the case with the most well-loved dishes and I think his grandma wouldn’t mind a bit. There is no doubt something heartening and necessary about a humble heritage recipe finding new life in the gastronomical amenities of today’s more privileged generation.
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- Photography Jason Ho