My aunt's chicken essence
I have a big announcement - we’re moving to the Netherlands in April! Wex received an offer to work at the headquarters of his Dutch company and while we felt that the move is a hasty one, it is undoubtedly a great opportunity to experience a new culture. Even though home is just a plane ride away, moving to a country that’s further away from Singapore than Australia (where we currently live) is still something that’s a little hard for family to take.
I’m back in Singapore very briefly for work and my cousin’s wedding before our relocation, and this time around, I’ve been spending less time with friends and more time with family. I was at my aunt’s the other day and she spontaneously decided to make chicken essence for me since it will be awhile till we next meet. Very nourishing, she says. Food is medicine and food is love.
She picked up a chicken from the supermarket and began scrubbing it with salt to remove impurities from the surface of the chicken:
The chicken gets cut into parts, and the skin is pulled off the legs, neck, backbone, and breasts. I grumble about her discarding the best bits but she says that the chicken essence would be too oily otherwise.
Even though she didn’t get the kampung variety (free-range chicken that has characteristically yellow skin and favoured for chicken rice), the chicken had a yellow tinge to its fat. It was also darker-fleshed and leaner than those I typically cook with from Australia. Chicken in Australia is far too plump and pale for my liking.
My aunt says that it’s probably because those chickens are soaked in water for far too long that the blood (and natural sweetness) gets drained out of it. She tells me of how she was at a Western supermarket with my popo in her younger years when they spotted chickens “as large as a turkey”. They bought one home to have a taste. My popo steamed it and according to my aunt, when they lifted the lid, the chicken had exuded so much liquid that it shrunk to half its original size. Exaggeration or truth, who really knows!
In an old newsletter that I wrote on homemade chicken essence, I shared that I typically smash the bones to maximise the release of chicken juices. My aunt doesn’t do that as it might make the essence cloudy rather than clear. What she does instead is to expose the bones:
With the breasts, she removes them from the breastbone and cuts them into bite-sized pieces:
Then, with a wire-cutter, she cuts the carcass into bite-sized pieces. My aunt used to be a hawker and it shows. She works efficiently and cleanly, and the tools that she has are not the most beautiful but the most practical for the job:
She takes the large ceramic pot that she inherited from my popo and places an overturned bowl in it. The bones go in first, followed by the meatier pieces:
Although this ceramic pot comes with a lid, the added height would make it too large to fit in her wok. Here’s my aunt sealing the pot with a few layers of clingwrap (I’m so impressed that she actually uses restaurant-style clingwrap at home):
She places the ceramic pot into her steaming set-up, covers the wok, and sets it on high heat. She dispenses a tip that she learnt from my popo: once you place the pot in the wok, don’t open the lid or it will not taste the same - so make sure that you start off with sufficient liquid in the steamer. She teaches me to wait till I hear the sound of water bubbling away in the pot before turning the heat down to a simmer. From there, the chicken steams for 2 hours, untouched.
2 hours later, the chicken is thoroughly spent and the chicken feet have become completely tender. Discard the chicken parts or consume while hot/warm (it gets chalky once it cools down and does not make for good eating):
Remove the bowl in the centre, and you have the pure essence of chicken. Look at how golden it is! A 1.5kg chicken makes enough essence to fill 1 large bowl or 4 small bowls:
100% chicken. Something so simple, but such a potent expression of love! No words required.
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