I sat on the couch all day with my cat and season two of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, sick in the belly and the head, the latest victim of the illness that’s decimated my office this past week. I ate buttered saltines because we were out of bread for toast, and I was too lazy to put on pants and boots and go outside. I ate oranges, because I thought they’d make me feel better, but then I ate too many of them.
I’ve been tinkering with a version of a soup particular to two countries colonized by the Dutch, which happened to be the perfect soup for today, and for days like these when the rain is relentless and your playlist is just one feeling-sorry-for-self song after another and even Andy Samberg can’t break through the fog of flu season in your head. It’s from Suriname, though there’s something very similar (soto ayam) in Indonesia. It is often served with a bowl of rice on the side; if you’re serving more than four, a side of rice would stretch the dish to serve more people.
The simmering broth is fragrant and soothing, all ginger and citrus, with a floral touch from the coriander. The flavours reveal themselves in moments, like waves rolling in and then back, every bite a little bit different from the last but comforting all the same; it’s salty and briny and just a little bit sweet. It will fog up your windows and you will sweat when you eat it and you will feel better, but not heavy. It’s somewhere between a bowl of laksa and bowl of chicken noodle soup, and all the work is in the beginning, so you can spend the rest of the afternoon with your cat and Jake Peralta and your sad playlists.
Lemongrass and lime leaves freeze well, so when you find them, grab a whole bunch and keep them in your freezer for days like these.
(Makes four servings.)
- 1 large sweet onion, such as Walla Walla, halved
- 1 head garlic, halved cross-wise
- 3-inch knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 3 tbsp. peanut or canola oil
- 3 lbs. bone-in skin-on chicken thighs
- 1 tbsp. coarse salt
- 1 tbsp. coriander seeds
- 2 tsp. cumin seeds
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns
- 6 fresh or frozen lime leaves
- 2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed and halved lengthwise
- 1 stalk celery, cut into three pieces
- 3 tbsp. fish sauce
- 14 oz. (398 mL) can coconut milk
- 2 cups finely chopped green cabbage
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1 lime, zest and juice
- 1 tsp. ground turmeric
- 4 thai bird or other hot chilies, finely chopped
- 4 handfuls fresh bean sprouts
- 2 scallions, finely chopped
- 8 oz. rice vermicelli (about 1/2 package)
- 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
- Celery leaves
- Sambal oelek or other chili paste
Heat your oven to broil. Place the onion, garlic, and ginger on a sheet pan, and place under the broiler until blackened in parts, about five minutes.
Meanwhile, salt chicken thighs. Heat oil in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. When oil shimmers, brown the thighs a few at a time. Drain the oil from the pot.
Heat a second burner. Over high heat, in a cast iron or other heavy pan, toast coriander seeds, cumin seeds, and peppercorns until browned and fragrant, tossing regularly, about three minutes. Set aside.
Cut a large square of two layers of cheesecloth, at least eight inches by eight inches. Onto this, place your lime leaves, lemongrass, celery pieces, charred onion, garlic and ginger, and toasted coriander, cumin and pepper. Fold the ends of the cheesecloth over, then roll the bundle tightly and secure with kitchen string.
Place the Dutch oven or heavy pot back on the heat, and add eight cups of cold water. Place the chicken thighs and spice bundle in the pot, add fish sauce, then partly cover. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently for two-and-a-half to three hours, occasionally skimming the top with a spoon. If it boils, remove the lid and reduce the heat; you want the broth to remain as clear as possible.
Remove chicken and spice bundle. Shred the chicken, discarding the skin and bones (you can make another stock out of the bones, if you’re feeling thrifty). Return the chicken to the pot with the coconut milk and cabbage. Bring heat up to medium, and simmer for up to five minutes, until cabbage is tender. Add lime juice and zest, and turmeric. Taste, adjusting the seasonings to your preference. Add cilantro.
Prepare vermicelli according to package instructions, then divide evenly between four large soup bowls. Add handfuls of bean sprouts and a sprinkle each of chilies and scallions. Ladle chicken and broth into bowls, then nestle two egg halves into each bowl of soup. Top with celery leaves and sambal oelek or other chili paste, and serve with quartered fresh lime and additional fish sauce.