Soup was my nemesis.
It was inescapable at the dinner table in my Singapore home. And the breakfast table, too, for that matter. And, sometimes, if Mum thought I looked too “heaty” (which, sadly, is hardly the saucy condition that you might imagine) and needed something with yin in it to “cool” me down, there it was at lunch as well.
A college friend likes to recall the column by Singapore humorist Colin Goh where he notes, “If Harry Potter went to school in Singapore he’d learn in potions
class that there are two kinds of potions: heaty and cooling.”
You may laugh. But it’s true — Singaporeans take these piping-hot brews very seriously. These broths featuring pork or chicken with a mish-mash of vegetables and Chinese herbs are generally concocted with the idea that they can solve some medical problem you have.
Sore throat? Impotence? That gunshot wound in your tush? No problem — just take two bowls of this and call your Mum in the morning.
Given that some of these herbs actually resembled wizened fingers or a tangle of human hair and smelled like my grandmother’s socks, however, I wasn’t too crazy about them.
But it’s funny how you suddenly crave the thing that you loathe as a child once you know it’s no longer there at your elbows, just waiting for you to push it away.
Walking through Chinatown with chef Simpson recently, we stumbled upon a basket of massive, beige root vegetables. My eyes brightened, I practically ran toward the basket, grabbing a particularly lengthy, sturdy one, speechless with excitement as I cradled it.
It had never struck me up until that very moment that this tuber bore an uncanny resemblance to a sex toy.
Sacrilege aside, this lotus root figured prominently in the kitchen of my childhood — I was never quite sure what health benefit it had but my mother would cook up tubs of its soup. “It’s good for you,” she would firmly say as I groaned again upon seeing a bowl of it on the table. (It turns out, people believe that this soup can help anything from high fevers to “bleeding of the esophagus.” I kid you not.)
But how to take this phallic tuber and turn it into soup? To everyone I asked, the answer was very simple and was conveyed in the way that my family tends to impart culinary wisdom: “It’s very easy — you just chop it up, put it in a pot of water and just boil, boil, boil lor!”
For a gal who is so insecure in the kitchen that she spends hours researching recipes online, checking out reader comments on the recipes and then faithfully follows each instruction printed out before daring to put something on the dinner table, this sort of advice was patently unhelpful.
Simpson, however, assured me that it was, in fact, very easy. He bundled a few dried oysters in a small bag, stuffed it into my hand and wished me well.
It turned out, my first stab wasn’t a disaster — you peel and slice the lotus root and fill up a pot with about as much water as you think you’d like. Then you add some pork with bone in it (I used chicken as I couldn’t find some nice-looking pork), dump in the root, some dried red dates and goji berries to sweeten it a little and then toss in the dried oysters for a little saltiness. And then, you “boil, boil, boil.”
After about an hour, when a test yielded a spoon-ful of what tasted like dried-oyster water, I fished out all the oysters and let the soup simmer for several hours more. I thought the soup might be a disaster, given the oysters. But the result was a delicious brown broth with an intense, earthy flavor with just a hint of oystery fishiness, which actually lended a smoky complexity to the plain but satisfying soup that I remember having as a child.
I started to wonder how my New York City dinner guests might like the broth served as an appetizer with mini ravioli floating in it along with a sprinkle of chopped chives.
Feeling triumphant, I immediately texted my guru Simpson to tell him about my sex-toy soup breakthrough. His quick response: “Choi! The oyster is for another thing!” Which suddenly explained it all.
Well, at least my esophagus hasn’t bled in a while.