I wanted a bowl of calm. A spoonful of a Zen garden with limpid, darkly-soothing pools of elegantly standing lily pads and gracefully gliding, vermilion-flashing koi. If only I could partake of that invisible yet fluid harmony between the visual, the smell and the taste that I had experienced in many Asian meals. I felt I had been unable to achieve that beautiful balance in similar home-cooked dishes. This time I was determined to get my recipe for homemade harmony, right.
Four elements came to mind. A broth that spoke a baritone – rich, reassuring yet clear. Rice, so essentially Asian and a versatile vehicle of all kinds of flavours. Something meaty yet light to build a deeply complex umami soul. And finally, the colour and crunch of greens to balance it all. So I decided chicken-mushroom broth with hot, sour and sweet sesame rice balls and chilli garlic Chinese mustard greens would be the foods to suit my mood.
Chinese mustard greens need very little cooking. I blanched them in hot water for no more than 15 seconds and then shocked them in a bowl of ice water to retain their emerald beauty.
The broth holds the spirit of any soup-based meal. It’s what can make or break that bowl of ramen or pho, no matter how many delicious accompaniments and condiments you have. So compose it with lots of love and care. It needs attention (I learnt this after stirring many a pot and ending up with broths that missed something of that elusive balance). It is important to bring it up to the boil and continuously skim the scum that rises to the surface. You have to do this a few times before it clears up. Then reduce to a low simmer and leave it to gently cook for an hour at least.
I make no bones about the fact that delicious soups need bones (couldn’t resist that pun!). They add that yummy chickenyness to the broth. So use a full chicken if you can (cut up, of course). You can later discard the neck and wings once the broth has extracted their flavour. Simmering keeps the meat beautifully soft and succulent.
I wanted to make sticky rice balls but sticky is not gummy so do not overcook the rice; but till it’s just done and all the liquid is absorbed. The grains must not disintegrate.
- 1 chicken cut into big pieces and cleaned
- 3 dried shitake mushrooms soaked in hot water for an hour
- 3 spring onions (white part only, reserve the green part for garnishing the soup)
- 2 cloves of garlic, halved
- 1 1 inch piece of ginger, halved
- 1 1 inch piece of cinnamon
- 1 star anise
- 1 tbsp mushroom sauce
- 1 tbsp dark soy sauce
- 200 g Arborio or sushi rice
- 1 1/2 tbsps Chinese rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsps Thai fish sauce
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 2-3 fresh red chillies, finely chopped
- 4-5 tbsps black sesame seeds lightly toasted
- 3-4 bunches of Chinese mustard greens
- 1 fat clove of garlic, finely minced
- 2 fresh red chillies finely chopped
- 1 tbsp oil
- To make the broth, put the chicken and all the other ingredients (including the shitake with the soaking water), except the mushroom sauce into a big pot of water (about 2 1/2 litres) and bring up to the boil. Once on a rolling boil, reduce to a simmer and keep skimming off the scum rising to the surface till such time as the broth appears clear. Continue to slowly simmer for an hour.
- After an hour, add the mushroom and soy sauces and check the seasoning. Take off the heat, remove the chicken pieces and mushrooms and set aside. Discard the ginger, garlic, onions, cinnamon and star anise.
- Slice the chicken and discard the bones. Slice the shitake mushrooms thinly, discarding the stems. Set aside.
- To make the rice, soak it in water for 20 minutes, drain and cook on a medium heat in 500 ml water, stirring occasionally. Add water in small quantities if required and cook till all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is cooked but not mushy.
- Transfer the rice to a bowl and mix in the chillies, fish sauce, vinegar and mirin. Allow to cool before shaping into golf ball sized portions. Roll to coat with back sesame seeds and set aside.
- To cook the mustard greens, blanch them in hot water for 15 seconds only and then quickly shock in ice water for a minute. Drain and roughly chop them for stir frying.
- Heat oil in a pan till fairly hot but not smoking. Throw in the greens, minced garlic and chillies and fry for 2 minutes tossing frequently to make sure they don not burn. Season with salt. Cook for 30 seconds more and remove from the heat.
- To assemble the meal, heat the broth. Place 3 rice balls in a bowl, add a generous helping of chicken and a few slices of mushroom, pour enough broth to partially cover the rice balls, sprinkle with chopped spring onions and serve immediately with the fried mustard greens on the side.