Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Mum-in-law's chicken soup

There's nothing quite like a hot, steaming bowl of chicken soup when you have the sniffles, are feeling a little under the weather, or just want some TLC. Everyone has their own version, from western-style soup made together with carrots, celery and other veggies, to Chinese herbal soups that are full of nourishing goodness. My favorite is a recipe I learned from my mother-in-law years ago. I've forgotten exactly what went into the soup but I think what I make today maintains the integrity of it, and more importantly, tastes delicious.

My mother-in-law is a fantastic cook. She's one of those instinctual cooks who can taste something at a restaurant and then render her own version of it that probably tastes better. I'm not sure how she came up with this recipe but I've not had anything quite like it anywhere else. The great thing about this soup is that you can add just about anything you like to it, once you've established the chicken broth. What makes this soup so yummy is that you deep fry the chicken first, to caramelize it and bring out the flavor. You can use a whole chicken, or just chicken pieces. My concession to healthy eating is using chicken breast, but I keep the skin on because, well, it just tastes better!

Another hallmark of this soup is the addition of eggplant. I deep fry 2-inch pieces of it and add it to the soup just before serving, so that the eggplant doesn't all disintegrate in the soup. It sounds really odd to have fried eggplant in soup, but like one of those "je ne sais quoi" ingredients, it just works. Try it - if you're an eggplant lover like me, you'll love it.

I believe my mother-in-law has pork ribs in her list of ingredients, so that the soup doesn't taste too chickeny. I tend to prefer more seafood flavors, so I add dried oysters and dried scallops, sometimes canned pacific clams or abalone on special occasions like Chinese New Year. I also add some dried shittake mushrooms. I let the soup simmer for as many hours as I can, and before serving, add some more vegetables like Chinese cabbage and leeks, and even fish balls because they happen to be a favorite of mine. The soup at this point is already very flavorful, but the addition of some fish sauce (or soy) and some pepper just makes what is already a very good soup perfect.

I've just listed down some basic ingredients to go into the soup, but you can do your spin on it. Add some fresh mushrooms if you like, or tofu pieces and more green vegetables. You can make a small pot of soup with chicken pieces for yourself or a huge pot of it with a whole chicken for sharing. Then just add whatever amounts you want of the other ingredients. The best thing about this soup is that it keeps and tastes even better the next day.

This chicken soup has kind of become one of my signature dishes, and friends ask that I make and bring it to potluck dinners and Chinese New Year feasts.  My sister-in-law says she makes it too, and she has probably stayed faithful to her mum's original recipe. I have my own twist on it, mainly because I can't quite remember what exactly went into it years ago when I first tasted it. My son, B, loves my version but pays homage to his grandmother by calling it "Ah Ma's chicken soup". I hope she approves!

Mum-in-law's chicken soup

1 whole chicken or chicken pieces
2 long eggplants, sliced into 2-inch pieces
Pork ribs (optional)
A handful of dried oysters and scallops
A handful of dried shittake mushrooms
A head of Chinese cabbage
Leeks (optional)
20 fish balls
Fish (or soy) sauce to taste
A dash of white pepper

Pat dry the whole chicken or chicken pieces and deep fry in oil until golden brown. The chicken does not have to be cooked through.
Pat dry the eggplant and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and set aside.
Add fried chicken to a pot of water, together with pork ribs and dried ingredients.
Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for at least 2 hours. Add more water to the soup if necessary.
Before serving, add the Chinese cabbage, leeks, fish balls and fried eggplant.
Add fish (or soy) sauce to taste, and a dash of pepper.

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