Sunday, 29 April 2012

memories of pakistani chinese & a recipe for chicken corn soup

chicken corn soup at thirty-two
i cannot think of a particular cuisine and culture that does not have a version of chicken soup. folk medicine and chicken soup have somewhat of a symbiotic relationship because every mother or grandmother i have known always recommends chicken soup as the restorative broth for coughs and colds. jewish cuisine goes so far as to maintain that chicken soup is penicillin for colds. i am not too sure about that because in my experience coughs and colds run their full course. but i do agree that a large bowl of chicken soup does much to lift the spirits when your nose is rimmed red and raw from having been cleaned too much and your throat feels like it has been sandpapered.

the pakistani version of chicken soup is yakhni. this clear and simple broth is actually steeped in flavour having drawn the entire essence of the chicken carcass. a thin film of fat from the chicken marks the surface as it cools. i must admit i am not too keen on plain yakhni for that reason but was quite content to drink mugs of powdered maggi yakhni as a child. (maggi is a nestlé brand of instant soups, sauces, stocks, seasonings and instant noodles. in south asia, its products include flavours like masala and chatpata alongside chicken and beef). i do sometimes wonder how mama put up with that given that a processed packaged mug of broth is nothing but manufactured flavour. aside from the synthetic  flavoured maggi, my other favourite was chinese chicken and vegetable soup. this was a clear chicken soup with paper-thin slices of chicken and vegetables poached in the broth. in some cases it would be thickened with corn flour. it was very rare for me to choose the common pakistani favourite chicken corn soup when we ate chinese.

i have always wondered what it is about chinese chicken corn soup that makes it so loved by the pakistani populace. its popularity is such that pakistani fast-food chains like black beards, captain cooks and dainty have it on their menu. perhaps its allure lies in how easily it can be made to conform to the pakistani palette. over zealous seasoning with rings of green chillies pickled in vinegar, pepper, soy sauce and red chilli flakes transformed it into a soup of purely local appeal. i always observed this transformation with interest as i tucked into a beef cheeseburger at black beards or the fantastic chicken fillet burger at dainty. the latter was the most perfect deep-fried chicken fillet smothered in mayonnaise on a milky sweet bun. the former had a patty that was too thin to be classified as a real burger but had that addictive quality of fast food. only the sweetness of the bun and a slice of a very yellow processed cheese balanced the peppery saltiness of the patty. i have no qualms admitting to eating these. i probably would not eat them now but back then the occasional burger from these fast food places was the perfect fix for a ‘desi’ burger craving. if i wanted the real deal, mama and baba made perfect classic burgers at home. black beards and dainty were the pakistani equivalent of burger king and kentucky fried chicken and who doesn’t love that guilt ridden fast food fix once in a while. when i was craving fast-food chinese i gravitated towards the peppery chowmein so i was quite surprised when two days ago i found myself wanting chinese chicken corn soup.

it could be the never-ending rain and cold windy weather in london, or a slow recovery from a cold that took residence in my chest and voice box. or it could have been the conversation with my best-friend sk who has been eating bowlfuls of chicken corn soup in from her local takeaway in dubai. i was unable to replicate the pakistani version probably because i do not season my soup as aggressively as i had seen in pakistan. but it is also because i added the egg and lemon mixture into the soup at too low a heat so the egg did not cook in wisps. pakistani chicken corn soup has a clear thick constitution with wisps of egg suspended in it. mine was a cloudy creamy concoction closer to an avgolemono (a mediterranean sauce and/or soup made with egg and lemon juice mixed with stock and heated until thick) . nevertheless it was as much comfort and nostalgia as could be held in a bowl. i garnished it with thinly sliced scallions, a dash of soy sauce and a single twist of the pepper mill. my version of chicken corn soup is nigella-ish – the stock came from a cube, the chicken was diced and sautéed with garlic and ginger rather poached and shredded and it only occurred to me afterwards that a little drizzle of toasted sesame oil would have been most welcome. but i am sure there will be a next time given that o loves chicken corn soup. something tells me that i will be making lots of this next winter. the recipe below makes two substantial bowls of chicken corn soup and is adapted from ainsley harriott’s meals in minutes.

one tablespoon vegetable oil
hundred grams boneless, skinless chicken breasts
one clove garlic, finely chopped
one cm piece of ginger, grated fine
one tablespoon cornflour
six hundred ml hot chicken stock made with a stock cube
hundred grams sweet corn
one egg
one tablespoon fresh lemon juice
one scallion, thinly sliced
soy sauce to drizzle
coarse pepper

dice the chicken into small pieces. heat the oil in a deep pan and cook till almost tender. introduce the garlic and ginger to the pan and cook to release their aromas. don’t let them colour.

blend the cornflour with a little stock and add to the soup pan with the remaining stock and the sweet corn. bring to the boil, stirring continuously and simmer gently for five to seven minutes

beat together the egg and lemon juice and slowly trickle into the soup pan, stirring with a chopstick or fork to form egg strands. correct the seasoning. i personally find that the stock is salty enough.  if you are using soy sauce that will be salty too so avoid over-salting. i use low sodium stock cubes and soy sauce.

ladle some soup into a bowl. garnish it with scallions, soy sauce and pepper and it is ready to eat.  

1 comment:

  1. One of my first taste memories is of sweet corn chicken soup and crispy noodles. Correction... chlorine, chicken soup and crispy noodles. When I was very little, Papa would take my sister and me swimming and we followed that with a pre-dinner dinner at a Chinese shack. I don't know what I looked forward to more... the 3-on-1-scooter-ride, the swim in a massive pool, or fake arguing with Papa to convince him to take us for some Chinese. Thank you lovely m for bringing these memories back into my life.

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