Mr Lemur has had a bit of a cold and, since I am Jewish, I naturally turn to chicken soup as a curative. But the old style Jewish penicillin doesn’t really do it for me as a culinary project and besides, I firmly believe that the best things for a cold are ginger, chilies, garlic and citrus. Like all cold remedies, they’re not going to cure it but they do make you feel slightly better about being sick. So I decided to make soto ayam, the Malaysian/Singaporean/Indonesian version of chicken soup that is about as soulful as a chicken soup can get.
I’ve made soto ayam before with noodles and with rice, but my Singaporean friend G suggested I should try it with ketupat, which are pressed rice cubes. G is a fellow foodie and is always sending me interesting nuggets of Southeast Asian food lore to consider. He knows exactly what’s going to pique my interest and ketupat, with their very specific twist on an ordinary ingredient, are right up my alley. They’re made by cooking rice inside a woven basket of coconut leaves. The rice has little space to expand and so cooks in a compressed form, making little rice cakes. Neat, huh? The only problem is that many Asian cooks buy the baskets ready made and weaving them oneself looks rather challenging, even assuming you could get hold of coconut leaves.
Frankly, it looks like the kind of craft project I’d make a total arse of. Luckily, Sunflower Food provides a cheat’s guide to ketupat, which involves cooking rice then mashing it with a potato masher, forming it into a block, and pressing it under weights. Since I’ve never had the original, I can’t say how close this version comes, but it is certainly easy and the resulting blocks had a good texture.
As with the various starches that can go into a soto ayam, the soup itself has many variations. Most involve turmeric that turns the soup a lovely yellow colour, but I’ve seen versions that are pale and milky looking too. What they all have in common is chicken cooked in a spice-scented broth that then forms the basis for the soup. The cooked chicken is shredded and added back into the soup, along with an array of possible toppings. My version draws from James Oseland’s method of frying the spice paste before adding it to the broth (a method that I’ve found really useful in cooking Malaysian-style dishes) but I have a somewhat different balance of spices. Mr Lemur is still looking a bit peaky but I think he’s much better for the soto ayam.
Soto ayam / Singapore style chicken soup
- 2 chicken leg and thigh portions
- 1 litre or so of filtered water
- 8 shallots
- 3 cloves garlic
- 3 inches of fresh turmeric
- 1 inch of ginger
- 1 inch of galangal
- 4 stalks lemongrass
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 1 tsp black peppercorns
- 2 cloves
- 2 star anise
- 3 lime leaves
- 1-2 limes
- 1/2 a long red chili (or 2 smaller red ones)
- a handful of cilantro
- a handful of beansprouts
- 12 or more blocks of ketupat
- salt and cooking oil
Pour the water into a large pot. I got the filtering tip from Oseland also, and it makes sense that for a clear soup, you really want the water to taste good. Add the chicken pieces, star anise and lime leaves. Bash up the lemongrass a bit with the back of a knife and add. Add a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, skim the surface and simmer for about 45 minutes, till the chicken is beginning to fall off the bones. Remove the chicken and set aside to cool. (Make sure your cat doesn’t eat it.) Discard the flavourings from the broth but keep the broth. When the chicken is cool enough to touch, pull it apart into fine shreds.
While the chicken is cooking, prepare the spice paste and toppings. First, slice four of the shallots thinly and fry until brown. Set these aside for later. Slice the chili thinly, wash the beansprouts, and pull the leaves off the cilantro. Put all these toppings aside.
Next, put the peppercorns, coriander seeds and cloves in a mini prep or spice grinder and process till powdered. Roughly chop the remaining shallots and add to the ground spices in a mini prep along with the garlic and the peeled and chopped ginger, galangal and turmeric. Process till smooth and then fry for five minutes or so in the same pan used for the shallots. You’ll want to be quite generous with the oil as this paste drinks it up, and stir often to avoid burning. When the paste doesn’t smell raw any more, add it to the broth along with the shredded chicken.
Now simmer the soup for another 10-15 minutes, to give the flavours time to meld. When the soup is ready, take it off the heat and squeeze in the juice of 1 lime (or more) to taste. Check for salt now too. To serve, put several ketupat blocks in the bottom of a bowl and ladle over the soup. Top with beansprouts, cilantro leaves and fried shallots. Other possible toppings include mint, pineapple cubes, shrimp crackers and sambal oelek.