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Soup opera

When winter spreads its ice-tipped fingers, I go for a steaming bowl of soup. I am not much of a soup person, but when the temperature dips, I order in a hot and sour soup from my favourite little Chinese restaurant. I like all the goodies that go into it — from juicy bits of lamb and pork to mushrooms and greens — and enjoy the hot spices that lend flavour to the soup. They clear my sinus, warm my bones — and bring a bit of excitement to a cold winter’s day.

Hot soups, of course, are just what the doctor orders to fight the cold. But I find that pan-Asian soups work better in this weather. Unlike European soups which are traditionally bland, Asian soups are often hot and spicy. “They make you break out into a sweat,” says chef Sujit Sinha jubilantly. The owner of Tangerine in Calcutta specialises in pan-Asian food and believes that Asian soups work wonders during this season.

The great thing about pan-Asian soups is that there are so many to choose from. Every region has its own speciality. Malaysia is known for its laksa, Thailand for its tom yam soup, Japan for its miso and udong noodle soup and China for a whole host of broths.

Pan-Asian chefs stress that there is nothing like a good hot Asian bowl of soup and let their creative juices flow in this season.

Rakesh Prasad, who is the executive sous chef at The Suryaa New Delhi, does a mean tom yam kung soup — a Thai hot prawn soup with lemon grass — and pancit molo, which is a soup prepared with chicken, pork, prawn, wantons and noodles, popular in the Philippines.

The trick, he says, is to have a thick stock for a winter soup. “Unlike the light stocks that are good for light, clear soups, winter soups need a thickened broth with strong flavours and spices,” he says.

I asked chef Rajesh Dubey, who is the director of food production, Speciality Group of Restaurants, about his favourite hot Asian soups. The Chinese hot pot soup — which is quite a favourite of the Chinese people during this season too — won hands down.

“People in parts of China which can get really cold sit around this huge pot in which a stock is thickening. There are all kinds of meats and vegetables in front of the pot. You take what you want, put it in the pot, let it cook, and then put it in your bowl with the stock even as it keeps getting thicker and stronger,” says chef Dubey. “And the big pot lets out heat and keeps you warm,” he says.

Chef Sinha believes that people like something hot and tangy when the temperature falls. That’s why Thai and Chinese soups are particularly popular in this season, he says.

But a few other soups have been attracting diners too. One of them is the Chinese lo mein — with wheat flour noodles, vegetables and all kinds of seafood and meat. The Vietnamese pho, chef Sinha points out, is another wholesome and blood-warming soup. The noodle soup is served with beef, chicken or pork.

I suppose one reason why Asian soups work in this season is the fact that they are often a meal in themselves. They come with noodles or rice, and a host of accompanying ingredients. The Burmese Khao Suey comes with everything from boiled eggs and burnt garlic to potato fritters and noodles. Even some of the lighter soups — such as chef Prasad’s chicken wanton and vegetable lemon grass soup — will be filled with plump wantons or dumplings stuffed with meat, fish or cabbages.

For me, nothing works like a bowl of hot and sour soup taken with some crusty bread. It warms the body — and the cockles of my heart.

Broccoli Crabmeat Soup (serves 1-2)

Ingredients:

1 tsp chicken broth powder • 2-in piece chopped ginger • 2 sliced garlic cloves • 2 tbs soy sauce • 225g fresh crabmeat • 2 cups baby spinach • 60g broccoli cut into small florets • 3 tbs cornstarch • 3 egg whites (beaten) • 4 thinly sliced green onions • 2 tsp sesame oil

Method:

Dissolve the cornstarch in three tablespoons of cold water. Heat oil in a pan. Add chopped ginger, garlic and green onion. Add stock powder and 500ml of water and bring to a boil. Add the crabmeat, broccoli and spinach. Let it boil. Slowly drizzle in the cornstarch while stirring the soup. Turn off the heat. Keep stirring the soup in one direction with a large spoon to make a whirlpool in the pan. While doing this, slowly drizzle in the egg whites. Let the soup stand for a minute. Add soy sauce. Pour the soup into two bowls and sprinkle green onions on top. Drizzle the sesame oil over the soup.