Singapore Cooks

Comfort in a bowl of chicken tortilla soup

Jeanne Chan-Walz's Mexican-style soup hits the spot with its hearty mix of ingredients

A bowl of chicken porridge is housewife Jeanne Chan-Walz's go-to comfort food whenever she feels under the weather.

However, the dish is not widely available in San Diego, California, where she lived for 3 1/2 years.

There, she found an unlikely alternative - chicken tortilla soup.

The Mexican dish is a hearty tomato-based soup with onions, celery and carrots, and aromatics such as oregano, cumin, paprika and ground coriander.

Then, it is topped with a raft of condiments.

Crescents of avocado and shreds of Mexican cheese thicken the soup, a squeeze of lime gives a sour tang and the topping of crushed corn tortilla chips injects some crunch. The spice level can be upped by drizzling habanero pepper sauce over the soup and adding sliced jalapenos chiles.

The 38-year-old says: "Whenever the seasons changed in San Diego, I would catch a cold and crave chicken tortilla soup. It reminds me of home and is like Mexican mui fan."

Mui fan is a Chinese rice and soup dish with meat and seafood.

In the US, she would get her chicken tortilla soup fix at fast-food chain Rubio's, which serves the soup with flour tortillas and salsa.

The mother of two moved back to Singapore with her family in April last year. They had also lived in Jakarta for three years before moving to San Diego, because of her American husband Dion's job postings.

The 42-year-old works as an engineer with a multinational company. They have two boys, aged six and four.

Back home, she found herself hankering after chicken tortilla soup, but could not find it in many Mexican restaurants here. Armed with a recipe from American health food website Kim's Cravings, she decided to re-create it.

The beauty of the chicken tortilla soup, she says, is its versatility.

Besides carrots and celery, she has also added ingredients such as corn, black beans and zucchini to the soup and the chicken stock can be substituted with pork and vegetable ones too.

"Cooking this dish is like fixing a puzzle, it is fun to figure out which ingredients can blend well together to create a delicious and flavourful package," she adds.

Her only gripe? "It can take up to 30 minutes to chop the ingredients," she laments. She usually prepares them in advance on weekends, so that she can rustle up the soup on weekdays for her family.

Over the years, she has built a repertoire of Mexican dishes to satisfy her husband's cravings. The dishes include shrimp and chicken tacos; black bean and cheese burritos; quesadillas and taquitos, which are deep-fried taco rolls.

Not bad for someone who says that she was "forced to cook for survival".

A former advertising executive, Mrs Chan-Walz used to pull hectic 10-hour work days, which gave her no time to think about cooking. In 2009, she quit her job and moved with her husband to Jakarta. With time on her hands, she decided to venture into the kitchen to whip up nutritious meals for her family.

Her favourite dishes to cook include pizzas that she makes from scratch using whole wheat flour for the base; muffins that are loaded with beetroot, zucchini and carrots; basil pesto and meatball pasta; and fish and chips.

She also counts char siew, braised pork belly and fried noodles as her best Singapore dishes.

Living overseas has allowed her to pick up recipes from people she has met.

Her Korean neighbour in San Diego, for example, taught her how to make japchae (Korean stir-fried glass noodles).

She says: "I never realised that cooking can be so flexible. It is fun to work your brain to tweak recipes to come up with pretty tasty food."


Chicken Tortilla Soup

INGREDIENTS

150g boneless, skinless chicken breast meat

150g boneless, skinless chicken thigh meat

2 Tbs olive oil

1/2 Tbs dried oregano leaves

1/4 tsp sea salt

1/4 tsp ground black pepper

130g onion, diced

260g celery, cut to 1cm-thick slices

3 cloves garlic, minced

4 medium-sized tomatoes, cut into quarters

260g carrot, diced

900ml store-bought chicken stock

For the spice mix

1/2 Tbs dried oregano leaves

1 tsp ground cumin

1/4 tsp ground paprika

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

1 tsp ground coriander

1 tsp garlic powder

Toppings

130g shredded Mexican blend cheese, from FairPrice supermarkets

2 ripe avocados, sliced

Coriander leaves, sliced jalapeno chiles, crushed tortilla chips to taste

2 large limes, cut into wedges

130g cooked rice

METHOD

1. Place the chicken in a mixing bowl, add olive oil, dried oregano leaves, sea salt and black pepper. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour.

2. When the chicken is ready, pre-heat the oven to 190 deg C. Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and place on a baking tray. Bake for 20 minutes. Transfer the baked chicken onto a plate. Pull the meat into shreds using two forks. Set aside.

3. In a pot set over medium heat, add 1 Tbs olive oil, onions and celery. Stir the mixture for five to eight minutes until the vegetables soften.

4.. Add garlic and mix for two minutes before adding tomatoes. Stir another four minutes. Cover the pot with a lid, switch to high heat and let the mixture cook for five minutes. The vegetables should be soft enough to mash when pressed with a spatula.

5. Turn off the heat and remove the pot from the stove. Add 250ml of the chicken stock into the pot. With a hand blender, blitz the mixture until it becomes a smooth puree.

6. Return the pot to the stove at high heat, add the spice mix, shredded chicken, carrots and the remaining stock. Bring the mixture to a boil before turning the heat down to medium and cook for 10 minutes until the carrots are soft.

7. Divide the soup among five bowls. Top each bowl with the shredded Mexican blend cheese, avocado, coriander leaves, jalapeno slices and crushed tortilla chips. Squeeze a wedge of lime over each bowl. Serve with the rice.

Serves five

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 20, 2017, with the headline 'Comfort in a bowl'. Print Edition | Subscribe