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In Singapore, Chinese chicken soup generally refers to clear broths simmered with the whole chicken combined with any variety of mushrooms or root vegetables like carrot, potato, celery and etc., and Chinese herbs.
It is a common belief that Chinese chicken soup relieves coughs and sore throats because the gentle heat from the soup improves blood circulation near the throat and windpipe. Most importantly, the chicken and complementary ingredients used provide much needed nutrients to boost the immunity system and nourish the body. For example, chicken is a good source of carnosine, an anti-oxidant. Carnosine is already been taken in the form of health supplements in some countries. Isn’t taking it in the form of a yummy chicken soup way more enjoyable than popping pills?
Herbal chicken thigh soup in a claypot. Photo by Phoebe Lim.
The organic chicken and the black chicken
I strongly recommend choosing organically grown chicken for simmering soups. In Singapore, we used to have what we call <i>ayam kampung</i>. Kampung is the Malay word for a rural village and ayam means chicken. In the past, villagers rear their own chickens. These birds are free to roam around their owners’ compound, peeking for food and sleeping under the houses.
With modernisation and industralization, villages in Singapore are all but gone. Now, chickens come from farms in neighbouring countries and are mostly reared in batteries and fed with growth hormones and antibiotics to hasten their growth. Ayam kampong are still available in Malaysia and Indonesia but I think are reared mostly for domestic consumption.
Kampung chicken is a little leaner and yellower. The meat has a fuller flavour than the battery-raised ones.
Free range chicken.
In recent years, kampong chickens are making a comeback. I have seen the smaller birds with a mellow yellow tinge in their skin being sold in the local supermarkets. They are slightly more expensive but I like to think that these birds had a happy life before becoming food on my table.
The concern with using battery chicken in simmered soups is the fear that the growth hormones and antibiotics had left traces in the flesh and bones. These are then leached out into the soup together with the nutrients.
Another recommendation I would like to make is for you to try the black chicken. It is also known as the silkie and the black-boned chicken. It is used almost exclusively in Chinese herbal soups as it has high medicinal value.
As mentioned, many Chinese chicken soups use the whole chicken. Many people do not chop the chicken up. They may remove the head, neck, feet, the innards and backside but that’s about it.
Various chicken parts can be used for soups in smaller portions. I personally like using chicken thighs for simmered soups. There is more fat and flavour in the thigh meat.
Slices of chicken breasts or fillet are used to make quick soups where cooking time is just enough to cook the meat. Other more exotic parts like the necks and feet have also been used in Chinese soups.
Ground chicken, although not very common, can be made into meatballs and served in soups or as wonton filling.
There are a couple of ingredients that go extremely well with chicken. First, Chinese herbs. Those frequently paired with chicken are solomon's seal, ginseng, danggui, red dates, Chinese yam and goji berries.
Here's a recipe with honey dates.
1. Easy chicken soup recipe with baby bok choy and honey dates
This is an easy chicken soup recipe with a few key ingredients slowly simmered to produce a flavorsome broth.
Baby bok choy is a green leafy vegetable that cook pretty fast so it is added to the soup at the final stage so as to not overcook it. There are many name variations to this little leafy vegetable such as bak choy and Shanghai green. In mandarin, it is known as 小白菜 (xiao bai cai).
Honey dates are bigger and sweeter than red dates. It is light brown in colour and looks as if it has a thin coat of icing sugar.
1 small chicken
600g baby bok choy
3 honey dates
2 slices ginger
12 cups of water or soup stock
Pinch of salt
Wash the bak choy and cut lengthwise
Clean the chicken, cut into pieces and parboil
Bring the water to a boil
Add the chicken, ginger and honey dates
Bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes
Lower heat and simmer for 1 1/5 hours
Add the bak choy and cook till it is done
Add salt before serving
It goes well with mushrooms, Chinese fungus and ginger.