(Do not reach to adjust the brightness dial on your computer: that is, indeed, the color of the soup. And the color of my silicone spatula. And the color of my bespattered linoleum counter. Oh, turmeric, you madden me with your lovely flavor and your ability to turn everything you touch to bright, unmoveable yellow.)
Whenever I leave Europe after vacation, I arrive back in the States with a knot in my heart and a serious craving for fresh, spicy Asian food: clear broths, incendiary peppers, bright flavors. I'm not really sure why. Last summer, I read Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark Fin and Sichuan Pepper on the flight back from Italy and I arrived with a watering mouth and unholy hankering for dan dan noodles. I couldn't rest until I drove myself to Flushing one night after work to go down into the rabbit warren of food stands that is Golden Mall.
This time I made a crucial mistake. I thought that making my own Asian food would be just as good as leaving it up to the experts. What I didn't realize is that part of what I look forward is the sheer ease of being able to show up somewhere in New York and have utter confidence that what you're about to order is authentic, delicious and not to be replicated at home. Berlin may have many things, but superb Asian food available at a moment's notice is not one of them.
Anyway, instead of just hopping in the car and going to to Flushing one night, I read Julia Moskin's article about curried noodle soups and decided to cook my own happiness instead of buying it. Well. I won't be doing that again. Not when I'm in the still-delicate fog of jet lag and melancholy. It's not that the soup was bad. It wasn't. It was fine. Well, a little greasy, perhaps, and the flavors a bit muddied, it's true, but it wasn't awful.
(What an endorsement, right?)
I guess what I'm trying to say is that this soup just wasn't right for me this week. That's the silliest thing I might have ever written on this blog, but it just so happens to be true. I don't doubt that this soup soothes millions of souls, but all it made me feel was foolish and slightly cheated. I learn easily enough, though. Next time, I'm going directly from the airport to Chinatown and letting the professionals do my palliative cooking. Ooh, I'm excited already.
Soto Ayam (Indonesian Chicken Soup with Noodles and Aromatics)
1 free-range chicken, about 3 pounds, quartered
2 stalks fresh lemon grass, bruised with the handle of a heavy knife and tied in a knot
6 kaffir lime leaves, fresh or frozen (optional)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
5 shallots, peeled and halved
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 teaspoons finely minced fresh turmeric, or 1 1/2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons finely minced ginger
3 tablespoons peanut oil
4 ounces glass noodles or thin dried rice noodles, called vermicelli, bihun or bun
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped celery leaves, mint, Thai basil or cilantro leaves
2 shallots, thinly sliced and fried in vegetable oil until brown (optional)
Quartered limes and chili paste (such as sambal) for serving
Cooked white rice (optional)
1. Place chicken in a medium pot with lemon grass, lime leaves (if using), salt and 2 quarts water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer until chicken is tender, about 45 minutes, skimming as needed to make a clear broth. Remove chicken pieces from broth and set aside. Remove and discard lemon grass and lime leaves; reserve stock in pot. When chicken is cool enough to handle, discard skin and bones and shred meat into bite-size pieces.
2. Meanwhile, combine peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds in a small food processor. Pulse until ground. Add halved shallots, garlic, turmeric and ginger and pulse to a thick paste. (Add a little water if needed.)
3. Heat peanut oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. When very hot, add spice paste and cook, stirring until paste is cooked and beginning to separate from the oil, about 5 minutes.
4. Add cooked spice paste and chicken meat to stock. Bring to a simmer and cook 10 minutes.
5. Cook noodles according to package directions.
6. Turn off heat under soup and stir in lime juice. Taste for salt.
7. To serve, divide noodles in large soup bowls. Ladle chicken pieces and soup on top and sprinkle with celery leaves or herbs, and fried shallots, if using. Pass lime and sambal at the table.
8. Eat from soup bowl, or serve a scoop of rice on a side plate, sprinkled with more shallots, and put a mouthful of noodles and chicken on rice. Combine on a spoon, dab with sambal, and eat.