I have always known about the virtues of chicken soup and the almost magic properties of a clear chicken broth for treating all that ails you. As a child, various types of soups were often on the menu at my home in Guyana. The soups at home were of different types, flavor profiles and consistencies, but my all time favorite was Chinese style chicken soup with a ginger broth. I guess that there were many reasons why we consumed soups frequently in my home. Not only were they economical meals, but they were also highly nutritious for feeding a large family such as ours. My mother recently told me that at one period of time, she made soup for my father’s lunch almost everyday, as it was something which he really enjoyed and could be made within an hour or so depending on the complexity.
My dad is a great cook and when he would decide to make a meal for us, he could whip up several courses in one sitting. Some of his well known offerings included soups, stir fry veggie dishes, roasts, seafood delights and the list goes on. When my Gus was in the kitchen, my mom Jenifer tended to retreat to some other room entirely, in order to avoid the inevitable tensions which could arise. My mother is an excellent cook, but her methods and organization are unlike my dad’s. There was usually quite a bit of cleanup in the kitchen after Dad’s famous meals. It often seemed as though every pot and utensil had been used. This was much to the chagrin of my poor mother and the other members of the clean up crew.
My father learned to cook from his mother Marion. My grandmother was second generation Chinese in Guyana. She was a superb cook and I remember her fondly. She taught her youngest child all of the recipes he loved before setting off for University in Canada to study Pharmacy. She knew that he needed to fend for himself once there and would be far away from home and all things familiar. It was the best and most loving that she could do as a mother. My dad learned well from her and became a formidable cook himself. As my sister and I were dad’s little helpers in the kitchen, we learned from a young age how to do many things which would benefit us later on in life.
I would help to clean shrimp and crabs, prep vegetables, fold wontons and cook rice during my father’s culinary bouts. The kitchen would be abuzz with every burner on the stove occupied with some pot. The glorious smells of delicious dishes being made wafted through the house and we could hardly wait for the meal to be ready. Sometimes this could be at 10pm at night if daddy decided he wanted something particular.
One of Dad’s best and most beloved dishes was his Chinese Hakka style boiled chicken and cellophane fincee noodle soup. Though the name gives no real hint to the wonderful flavors of this dish, it is truly a masterpiece in itself. The simple pleasure of the delicious broth flavored with aromatics like star anise, ginger and green onions is a testament to the power of proportions in flavor. This is no ordinary run of the mill chicken soup, and bears no comparison to the ubiquitous canned chicken noodle soup which many associate with chicken soup. Instead, it is a dish of classic Chinese flavors and undeniably every family of Chinese heritage has their own special take on this soup. It speaks volumes to me of my past and if the wonderful flavors I grew up loving. Eating a bowl of this Chinese style shun takes me through a time warp and back generations of home cooks putting relatively inexpensive ingredients into a stock pot and gently simmering them together to produce a glorious nutritious and very delicious soup for their families.
The whole chicken renders its tasty flavor to the broth and the ginger imparts warmth, deep flavor and medicinal properties. The addition of a couple of star anise is key in imparting a particular flavor which to me, is perfection. Green onions or leeks are also flavorful additions to the flavorful broth. Also important in this soup are dried shiitake mushrooms which are reconstituted in hot water, plumped up and added along with the dark tinted soaking liquid. Foo chuck or dried bean curd sheets would also be added as well as Chinese hairy squash/ winter melon or Chien qua was also a favorite addition. The cubes of white squash added to the broth would absorb all of the wonderful soup flavors. Biting into a piece would render an extra bit of goodness to each mouthful as the soup would be released.
Once the soup was almost done, a little measure of cognac would be added to the broth along with a sprinkle of freshly cut garlic chives. This most definitely gave a rich and satisfying flavor.
My dad would take out the poached chicken which was usually in 2 halves and set it aside in a chopping board. He would then deftly chop the pieces up Chinese style into smaller pieces with a large cleaver or Tao ma. A dipping sauce would be made with minced garlic, soy sauce and a bit of oil. There would sometimes be a second dipping sauce to accompany the boiled chicken which was made of finely chopped ginger, scallions and oil.
We would always have a pot of steamed rice and hopefully Chinese sausages or lap cheong atop the rice. If you have never tasted a Chinese sausage, you are missing out on something special. They are usually made of pork and the flavor is a mixture of sweet, salty and smoky flavors. The sausages are dried and have a characteristically burgundy color. They are cooked by simply placing in a steamer or on top of the rice while it cooks. When sliced they are deep reddish brown and are so flavorful and delicious. This for me is the prefect addition to the soup, rice and chicken meal.
I particularly enjoy my soup as a one bowl meal served with a scoop of rice and a few ladles of broth. I like to add juicy mushrooms, clear noodles, veggies , chicken and lap cheong on the top. A drizzle of the pungent soy garlic sauce on the chicken and everything moves up a notch to the next level of deliciousness. This for me is hands down the best comfort food on the planet and has a great deal of nostalgia in every bite.
This tasty soup is home cooking at its best. I have never seen this on a restaurant menu, but I am sure that every Chinese Guyanese family has their own recipe for this chicken and finsee soup with a few variants. When I think of chicken soup, this is what comes to mind. I am so happy to have learned to cook this and to have been able to share the simple pleasure of it to my family, who absolutely love it. In fact, this dish was the first one which my Haïtian husband loved immediately when he began to learn about my culture.
Today, my family is so multicultural and there are other ethnicities to which we connect. Although we are no longer pure Chinese blood lines, we are thankful for our ancient ancestors and the culture which we inherited from them. In the time of indentured labor, they made their way to the Caribbean, so far away from China looking for new opportunities for their families. Inevitably, they brought with them their food and culture which morphed and adapted through time in a new country. Today, my children’s only attachment to their Chinese ancestry, is simply through the cuisine that we love and share.
Here is my recipe for Chinese style chicken soup.
Chinese style ginger chicken soup with clear noodles
1 whole chicken 3- 4lbs cut in halves or quarters. Please do not try this recipe with pieces of deboned chicken breast as it will not have the same flavor as a whole chicken with bones left in.
Cover the chicken with water when immersed by about 2″.
1 piece ginger about 4” long, peeled and sliced into 3-4 slices
2 whole star anise* optional
2 leeks, (white parts) cleaned and sliced into 3 sections or
3-4 spring onions or garlic chives chopped
1 stalk celery sliced (optional)
Salt to taste
Black pepper or white pepper to your taste
1 chicken bouillon cube
2 tbsp good brandy
8 shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water to reconstitute. If large, cut in halves.
Cloud ears or wanee dried mini shiitake mushrooms, fincee or dried rice cellophane noodles
2 -3 oz cellophane rice noodles (fincee), reconstitute in a bowl of cold water. Cut the threads in half when pliable. If you like more noodles add 3 ozs instead of 2 ozs. Note that increasing the noodles can reduce the broth.
1 oz dried bean curd sheets or sticks is a lovely addition to the soup. I just didn’t have any in hand when I took the pictures. Break into pieces and soak in warm water like mushrooms and add them along at the same time.
1 tbsp fish sauce *optional but delicious
In a deep stock pot, add the chicken pieces, ginger, leeks or scallions and star anise.
Add enough water to cover chicken pieces by about 2″. Put onto boil.
Allow the broth to come to a rolling boil skimming off and discard any foam scum which may arise to the surface. Add the fish sauce if using, chicken bouillon cube, adjust salt and ground pepper to taste. Also put the reconstituted shiitake mushrooms and cloud ears into the broth as they require at least 30 mins to become tender. I always add the liquid from the dehydrated ingredients as there is a great deal of flavor in there.
Fincee soaking in cold water and dried shiitake mushrooms being reconstituted in hot water
If you are lucky enough to find Chinese squash or winter melon; do add some. As I do not have winter melon available in Haïti, I sometimes add a chayote or mirliton in its place for nostalgia, as it is capable of absorbing the soup flavors nicely. It is not in my ingredient list as it is not absolutely necessary, but the cubes soak up the broth and biting into them is just wonderful.
Lower the heat and continue to cook for about 30 minutes. Do not overcook your chicken or it will lose its tenderness. Once there are no red or pink liquids which drain when pricked, remove the chicken meat, set aside and cover to retain moisture.
Add the clear rice noodles in the last 5 minutes of cooking. Adding the noodles too early will cause them absorb too much liquid. Add the brandy and chopped chives or scallion. Turn off the heat and serve. If there is an excess of oil on the surface rendered by the chicken; skim as much as you can before serving. Remember to remove the 2 star anise from the broth before serving as well as the ginger slices. You can cut the chicken into smaller pieces and serve in a platter alongside the soup and dipping sauces. You may also cut the cooled chicken into smaller pieces and replace in the broth. The preparation time is about 50 minutes to an hour.
Soy garlic & ginger dipping sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tbsp crushed garlic finely chopped
1 tsp grated ginger
In a small pot or fry pan, heat oil, add garlic and ginger cooking ever so lightly. Quickly pour soy sauce over. Do not allow the garlic to burn or it will make the sauce bitter. Add about 2 tbsp soup broth to the soy mixture. Remove from heat. Use this sauce to enrich your soup or as a dipping sauce to flavor your poached chicken. It is slightly pungent and salty but oh so delicious.
Soup can be served alone, but is heartier when serve with steamed rice and any of the other additions I mentioned above such as the Chinese sausage and vegetables.
poached chicken with garlic chives
So many great memories are associated with this simple good meal. It is the perfect elixir to make for someone with a cold or to raise someone’s spirit. It is ideal as a family meal when everyone sits casually around the table enjoying a homemade meal. For me this is comfort in a bowl and it’s one of my favorite family traditions and one which all of my children have come to associate with home.