Saturday, May 8, 2010

Recipes of the Orient: rustic Indonesian chicken soup

In the early seventies my parents travelled to Java for their honeymoon. My mother made two crucial mistakes during this trip (not counting the whole motorcycle in the rice-paddy incident). The first: purchasing a bowl of “noodles” from a street stall. She struggled through a giant bowl of shredded steamed tripe. The second: made wise by her tripe experience, she purchased, in the twilight of an outdoor food market, a plate of long green beans. The first forkful revealed her error: each long, green bean was a whole chilli. This didn’t, however, deter her. The best food is always found by the side of the road, bought from makeshift ‘kitchens’, cooked right in front of you. The risk is tripe and chillies. The reward: fresh, local, flavourful, authentic deliciousness, the kind that defines a region or country or town.

When I was sixteen my mother took my younger brother and me on a holiday to Java. From Jakata to Jogjakata, she manoeuvred two children through language barriers and nine hour train trips without air-conditioning in tropical heat and strange food and upset stomachs and terrible hotel rooms.

This was an extraordinary experience. Ancient temples, magical palaces, tiered tea plantations, noise, stench, serenity, being-attacked-by-monkeys, religious shrines and rituals, military monuments, a live volcano.

Unsurprisingly my strongest memory* of this holiday is the temporary street stall that arrived at dusk outside out hotel and packed up when the last of the food disappeared. Comprising a single gas burner, a large pot, stackable plastic chairs and table, a tarpaulin canopy, and a shrivelled tiny ancient Indonesian women and her equally ancient and shrunken male counterpart, this stall purveyed chicken and vegetable soup.

The soup appeared to consist of nothing more that a truly ginormous pot, filled with ginger, garlic, onions and many whole chickens, which had simmered away until the chicken fell off the bones. The carcasses remained in the stock. When someone requested a bowl of soup (in my case, by pointing) various chopped vegetables were added, cooked and the soup served with a scoop of boiled white rice.

The make-shift tables were laden with various mismatched bottles of soya sauce, ketchup manis** and sweet chilli sauce, fresh chopped chilli and vinegar.

Relying on a combination of observation and Recipes of the Orient (published in 1968 and bought by my mother following her return from the honeymoon) my mother and I managed to develop a recipe which evokes (although never exactly captures) sup ayam in the twilight by the side of a Javanese road.

* other that the whole monkey incident, which occurred due to a misunderstanding about a breadfruit I had stashed in my backpack. Once I surrendered the fruit, the monkeys let me be.

** a lightly spiced and heavily sweetened soya sauce syrup

Sup ayam (Indonesian chicken soup)

Serves 6

1 whole chicken, free range. At least 1 kg (note – a 1 kg chicken will make enough for 4 people. For more serving, used a 1.5 kg chicken, or add additional vegetables)
3 inches ginger, grated (you can use less if you are not a big ginger fan, but it is a key feature of the soup)
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 onions, chopped into 1cm dice
2 tablespoon soya sauce
2 potatoes, cut into 1.5 cm dice
1 small head broccoli, cut into small pieces (use the stalk as well – trim and dice)
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1.5 cm dice
½ head cauliflower, cut into small pieces
1 bunch bok choi or choi sum or similar

Boiled white rice and sweet chilli sauce, to serve

In a very large pot, add chicken, garlic, ginger and half the diced onion. Cover the chicken with cold water, bring to the boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about half an hour (essentially this poaches the chicken)

Remove chicken and set aside. Top up the chicken stock with additional water (you could use chicken or vegetable stock, but I don’t bother) and bring to the boil. Add 1 tablespoon soya sauce. Taste. If required, add remaining soya sauce and/or sea salt. If I’m being fancy, I skim and strain the stock – but it’s really not necessary.

When the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin, and shred the meat. Set aside. (This is both messy and time consuming. Alternatively, use 750 gm chicken mince, brown in a small amount of peanut oil, then add water, ginger etc).

Bring the stock back to the boil. Add potatoes and cook for about 5 minutes. Add remaining vegetables and onion, bring to the boil and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add chicken meat and heat through.

Serve with a spoonful of rice and sweet chilli sauce.

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