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Singapore Cooks

Grandma's hug in a broth

Tutor Vasunthara recreates her grandma's soup, a dish that takes her back to her childhood

Chicken bone broth has been making waves as a trendy health food recently. The wholesome stock, which is made from simmering chicken bones in water, brims with nutrients such as collagen and calcium from boiling down cartilage and tendons.

But tuition centre teacher Vasunthara finds it amusing that the broth is gaining so much attention now as she has been drinking a version of it from young.

Her grandmother, who is in her 80s, used to brew soup with leftover chicken pieces after she cooked chicken curry.

The chatty 35-year-old calls the broth her "ultimate comfort food", and especially craves it when she has a cold or on rainy days.

She says: "Taking in the aroma of the broth is like receiving a hug from grandma; it is also nostalgic as it takes me back to her kitchen and the ginger and spices make me feel warm inside, like drinking whisky."

The broth is perfumed by a bouquet of nine spices, such as black peppercorns, cardamom and fennel seeds.

Ms Vasunthara (above) with her comfort food - chicken bone broth cooked with nine spices.
Ms Vasunthara (above) with her comfort food – chicken bone broth cooked with nine spices. PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

She says that the umami-rich soup, like curry, has complex layers of flavours. The base of the broth is made with onions and spices infused in water. Tomatoes add a dash of acidity and lemongrass gives a citrus note. Crunchy Chinese celery, coriander and spring onion inject an anise seed-like aroma and flavour.

  • MAKE IT YOURSELF: CHICKEN BONE BROTH

    INGREDIENTS

    3 Tbs rice bran oil

    2 star anise

    1/2 tsp black peppercorns (about 8 to 10 pieces)

    4 green cardamom pods

    3 cloves

    2 tsp fennel seeds

    2 large bay leaves

    2.5cm cinnamon stick

    300g shallots, sliced thickly

    100g garlic, lightly pounded with the back of a knife

    4cm ginger, lightly pounded with the back of a knife

    2 Tbs coriander powder

    1/4 tsp turmeric powder

    1 to 2 stalks of lemongrass (use the white-coloured part of the stalk and flatten with a cleaver)

    2 large tomatoes, sliced to quarters 600g chicken carcasses or bones, store-bought

    1kg whole chicken, de-skinned and chopped into about 10 to 12 pieces

    1 litre water

    1 to 2 medium-sized carrots, sliced thickly

    1 large potato, chopped into medium-sized chunks salt to taste chopped Chinese celery, spring onions, coriander and fried shallots to garnish

    DIRECTIONS

    1. In a large pot set over medium heat, heat up rice bran oil and add star anise, black peppercorns, green cardamom pods, cloves, fennel seeds, bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Saute the spices for less than a minute till they turn aromatic. Stir with a spatula continuously.

    2. Add shallots, garlic and ginger and saute for about a minute till they soften. Add a pinch of salt to prevent the onions from burning.

    3. Add coriander and turmeric powders, lemongrass and tomatoes with 1 to 2 Tbs of hot water to prevent the spices from getting burnt. Saute for about one minute or until tomatoes soften.

    4. Reduce to low heat and add chicken carcass and chicken pieces into the pot before adding 1 litre of water. Add the carrot and potato into pot. Cover the pot and let it simmer for about 1 to 11/2 hours till chicken is fully cooked.

    5. Garnish the soup with chopped Chinese celery, spring onions, coriander and fried shallots. Serve.

    Serves four people

She adds that the broth can be kept for up to three days and takes on a more intense flavour over time. She enjoys dipping store-bought French loaves into the broth.

Ms Vasunthara created her version of her grandmother's chicken bone broth about four years ago when she "could experiment in her own kitchen".

The flavours of the broth are based on childhood memories when she lived in a shophouse in Joo Chiat, where her grandmother sold dosai and chutneys.

Growing up in a family strongly rooted in south Indian cooking, she was intimidated by the long list of ingredients needed for the dishes and having to nail down the right balance of spices, and stuck to less complex items such as chutneys and chicken curry.

Her cooking horizons broadened last year when she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, with her husband, 38, who was posted there for work. He works in the medical industry and the couple have no children.

Hankering for sour-and-sweet and spicier flavours that were missing from the predominantly north Indian cuisine in Auckland and with time on her hands, she started cooking south Indian food.

Using recipes from India: The Cookbook by Pushpesh Pant and cooking blogs, she expanded her repertoire to cook dishes such as Chettinad pepper chicken and fish curry.

It also helped that herbs and spices used in Indian cooking, such as moringa leaves and banana flowers, were available at grocers and in her weekend haunt, the Avondale farmers' market in Auckland.

"My stay in Auckland opened my eyes to Indian cooking as I learnt to make uncommon dishes such as Pesarattu dosa made from mung bean, and rogan josh, a Kashmiri lamb curry," she says. "It gave me the time and confidence to experiment and understand how the spices come together."

The couple moved back to Singapore in January this year.

Besides whipping up Indian food, she also enjoys cooking other Asian dishes, such as Thai green curry and basil chicken pasta, Korean food such as kimchi fried rice and bulgogi, and rendang.

She says: "Asian dishes are more pungent and aromatic and I get excited when the smell of spices fills the whole house."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Grandma's hug in a broth'. Print Edition | Subscribe