Chicken Sopas, revisited

9 years ago, I once wrote about mums and chicken sopas (and how a bowl of this chicken soup elixir is like a mother’s hug). What I forgot to mention is the extent of the impact of this bowl of chicken soup in me, and in my memory. You see, every summer in the Philippines, we would go to my dad’s provincial town of Nueva Ecija, about 3 hours north of Manila. It would be the highlight of our summer holidays: waking up early on a Saturday morning; packing the car with books, games and enough junk food only a kid’s metabolism can burn for the 3 hour road trip; stopping by the petrol station at NLEX (known at that time as North Superhighway!) for a wee and Jollibee break, before heading to the San Fernando exit as we pass by the corn and quail eggs sellers along the road.

And then you get a glimpse of Mt Arayat in the distance, and you know you’re in provincial territory. You slowly start to relax, turn off the air conditioning, open the car windows, and start to inhale the fresh air laced with that distinctive fire wood smoke smell from houses cooking their lunch of the day. The road gets narrower, as the car slows down to avoid the rice grains being dried on the road. You pass by centuries-old cemeteries next to centuries-old churches, and little huts in the middle of large, rice fields. The houses get smaller, the streets reduced to one-car lanes usually occupied by a carabao lazily walking around, sleepy stray dogs, or chickens busily eating leftover rice grains. The people get friendlier – strangers who give your car a friendly wave, quickly recognising my dad who grew up in this small, small town since he was a kid. We round a corner, and you recognise this small street: the local halo halo seller on the right side, the little huts on the left, and that wooden house at the far right with the yellow timber walls and yellow gates. It’s Lolo and Lola’s house (grandpa and grandma). It’s almost 1pm, you’re hungry (again), and yet you know that there’s a reward at the end of this trip.

You get out of the car to a mix smell of fire wood burning (a promise of lunch cooking in the back kitchen!) and that distinct probinsya air, and you greet Lolo and Lola with a mano po (a respectful gesture to your elders: you take their hand, and place it on your forehead as a sign of respect) as you inhale Lolo’s distinctive tobacco smell. Their way of telling you that they’re so happy to see you is to comment on how much taller you are compared to last year, and how much weight you’ve gained (thanks Lolo!). They quickly usher you to the dining table, never mind that you only ate an hour ago, where a delectable spread awaits. Grilled native chicken, pork bbq, pakbet (mixed vegetables), green mangoes with bagoong, and that distinctive white soup with pasta and chicken – chicken sopas. 

My Lola Nena cooked her chicken sopas with her own special twist. She used native chickens who grew free range in her farm. These skinny (and happy) but oh so tasty chickens bring out so much flavour to the broth. She used the whole chicken, including the off cuts such as liver and gizzards, to add depth to the soup. She also cooked this in a palayok (a traditional Filipino clay pot) over fire wood chopped from the backyard. But the crowning glory of it all is this: she finishes the soup with melted margarine. It adds richness, creaminess and an amazing finish to the soup.

Every time I make chicken sopas, I always revisit these trips to the province. And I always cook mine the way Lola Nena cooked hers: finish with margarine. I always imagine my 10 year old self, sweating in the humidity but cooled by the lovely river breeze, serenaded by the chickens in the backyard, sleepily listening to the adults gossip and catch up, with a belly full of beautiful, home cooked food and of course, Lola Nena’s chicken sopas.

Lola Nena’s Chicken Sopas

Makes approximately 4 servings

500g chicken breast*

3 cloves garlic

1 medium onion, chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and shredded

1/4 head of cabbage, chopped coarsely but finely

1/4 celery, chopped finely

1 tbsp fish sauce

250g rigatoni or elbow macaroni pasta

Salt and freshly ground pepper

200ml Carnation evaporated milk

1 tbsp butter or margarine

  1. Cook the chicken in plain water until tender (about 20 minutes).
  2. Once chicken is cooked, remove from the broth. Shred the chicken once cooled.
  3. Using the chicken broth, cook the pasta until al dente. Drain the pasta but save the chicken broth.
  4. Meanwhile, in a deep pot, saute garlic, onion and olive oil. Add the shredded chicken, fish sauce, salt and pepper.
  5. Add the chicken broth and carrots and put on lid. Cook carrots for 2 minutes.
  6. Add the cabbage and celery and put on lid. Your pot might look full, however the greens will wilt down during the cooking process. Cook greens for a further 2-3 minutes.
  7. Once everything is cooked, add pasta, evaporated milk, and butter or margarine. Stir everything gently.
  8. Serve warm and enjoy!

*For convenience, I use chicken breast. However feel free to use other parts of the chicken including bones and off cuts – this will give the broth a richer, deeper flavour.

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