A subtle incessant series of dok-dok-dok outside the bedroom roused me from my sleep. After a fruitless attempt in lifting open my eyelids, I turned onto my side on the thin mattress and squinted at the alarm clock that my mother had placed above my head on her bed. It was only half past eight; I had managed to rest for just a mere hour.
The morning sun and heat were already in full charge, piercing through the drawn curtains of the glass windows, shading my mother’s crammed bedroom with an amber glow. The stifling air and humidity caused my throbbing jetlag-induced headache to pound. I had arrived in Singapore just two hours ago and was amazed at how swiftly I reacquainted myself with the irritability of heat.
My mother had left the bedroom door ajar to let in air. It proved a futile help to the oscillation of the small fan that she had placed at the foot of her bed in cooling the room. My mother’s bedroom was stuffy and reeked of Tiger balm, however, I could still discern the whiff of boiling soup seeping in from the kitchen. I sat up on the mattress and stretched out my leg to push open the door.
The dok-dok-dok turned fervent: I could picture my mother in the kitchen, cleaver in hand, chopping meat and root vegetables on the wooden board. I knew at that instant what she had in store for me.
We Cantonese have soup with every meal every day and my mother would boil a different variety of soup each time. She would brew her soup in the morning, in time for lunch and best for dinner when all the flavours were at their richest after the ingredients had soaked in the broth for the entire day. My all-time favourite has to be her chicken soup.
My mother adheres to a rigorous process when making her chicken soup. She would brew it in a Chinese earthen soup pot over charcoal fire; painstakingly stoking the fire, checking on the heat, adding more charcoal if necessary.
The freshness and quality of the ingredients is of utmost importance: my mother uses a whole chicken, bones and meat, chopped into pieces, with potatoes (the powdery kind), carrots, tomatoes (a mix of ripe and unripe to give the soup a tangy taste), red onion, and dried scallops.
Besides the quality of the ingredients, the amount and the mix-and-match of them is crucial to the final taste of the soup – the number of potatoes to use, versus the amount of tomatoes, for example, so are the sizes of the cut pieces and the order in which each ingredient is added into the broth.
My love for my mother's chicken soup began after a childhood incident: I was 8 years old, had fallen flat on my face when I lost my grip on the swinging bar and smashed my jaws on the hard ground. For a week and more, apart from two chipped teeth and sore jaws, I had to live with a swollen lower lip that I had bitten open with my front teeth when I fell. Stretching my mouth wide open was an impossible feat and eating solid food turned into a real challenge. I could only take liquids by the spoonful and my mother nourished me with her chicken soup every day till I was well enough to eat solid food again.
From then on, my mother's chicken soup became a source of hearty comfort food for me. I would have it whenever I felt sick or didn't have an appetite for solid food. The dish reminds me of my mother and the warmth of home.
Having lived in Paris for 18 years now, my mother's chicken soup is still the simplest of homemade food that I miss. Whenever I feel homesick, especially during the cold and grey winter months, I would try to replicate my mother's chicken soup. However, no matter how I boil it, my chicken soup never tasted the same. Once thinking that I might have missed a crucial step, I called my mother long distance to go through her stringent preparation process, poring over my notes with her to see where I had gone wrong. I finally realised what was missing in all my brews – the chicken soup that I made, that I tried so hard to replicate will never be like my mother's for it lacks her devotion. Hers represents my home, my roots and her love, which she only knew how to express through cooking.
“A dish was a failure because it hadn’t been cooked with love. A dish was a success because the love was so obvious.” - Bill Buford
Food had therefore always been the basis of our relationship, and it was what brought us together. A few years back, my mother moved to a neighbourhood famous for its hawker food. There is a zi char stall at the coffee shop next to Ghim Moh market that serves sliced fish rice noodles soup (with dashes of XO wine) and it became my mother's favourite dish. So, as a treat to my mother, I would make it a point to have a bowl of this delicious soup with her, maintaining our bonding through food.
Yet no matter how I liked the taste of the sliced fish noodles soup, it would never replace the fondness I have for my mother's chicken soup.
Dok-dok-dok. I got up and slid the mattress under my mother’s bed. It was time to join my mother in the kitchen; to stand over the earthen pot for a whiff of the aroma as the steam flushed my cheeks warm; to watch my mother as she stir-fries the kalian, tossing the greens in oyster sauce in the hot oiled wok, intermingling them with caramelised garlic; to observe her drizzle sesame oil, sprinkle sliced ginger and fresh coriander onto the steamed pomfret. And to finally rekindle the bonding with my mother while savouring all these dishes, especially over a bowl of her homemade soup – the chicken soup for my homesick soul – which my mother brewed with love.