Even since I was young, I was known throughout the corners of my extended family to be the little girl who only ever wanted to eat chicken soup and rice. To this day, chicken soup continues to be my go-to when I’m under the weather, missing home, or just feeling a little lonely. Everyone has their comfort food, and chicken soup is mine. As a young child, I was stubborn and picky with food. There were only two dishes that basically made up my entire diet – kembang tahu, and nasi putih with sup ayam. On top of that, it wasn’t like I was having just any sup ayam, it had to be my Popo’s ayam kuah merah (Popo is Chinese for “grandmother”). It’s a sweet yet savoury chicken soup with a light red hue that comes from adding angkak into the soup, which is a type of red yeast rice known in Traditional Chinese Medicine to aid blood circulation and decrease inflammation. In my opinion, chicken soup is the ultimate comfort food because it nourishes both body and soul. While I have made other versions of chicken soup for others – chicken soup with ginseng, herbal black silkie chicken soup (乌鸡汤), soto ayam, and more – it has never crossed my mind to attempt making kuah merah. I’ve always reserved it as a soup that my Popo would make for me. I felt as though if I ever attempted to make it, I would be displacing her role as the maker of kuah merah.
I have always associated dishes as “my mom’s jiaozi” or “my Popo’s soup,” and it was not until my preteen years that I began to see my elders as people who were once children too. As I got older, I began to realize that my grandmother was not always just my grandmother. And that she, along with my parents and other grandparents, had a life long before my siblings, cousins, and I came along. I began to wonder if my Popo had someone to make kuah merah for her too. Taste itself, as a sensation of flavor, is a powerful and mysterious thing. It is a force through which we can be returned to the past while experiencing the present moment all at once, and I like to think that every dish holds stories of the people behind them. For me, a single spoon of kuah merah instantly transports me to the dining room of the house my grandparents lived in when I was in preschool.
One day, the irony of knowing the taste of kuah merah inside and out but only having a vague sense of the cooking process really dawned on me. I found myself overcome with a need to know how to make this soup, but I was conflicted. On a logical level, I knew that this recipe was important to have, and wanted to ensure that this piece of my cultural and familial history wouldn’t be lost. On a deeper, emotional level, I hadn’t yet overcome my yearning to perpetually be the person who is taken care of, the one whose soup is made for. Right before I called my Popo to ask for the recipe, I asked myself “Do I even want this recipe?” If I learn how to make this dish, does this mean that I am confirming and accepting that someday she won’t be here to make it for me? What happens when I am no longer the one to be taken care of and instead, am the caretaker? I am aware that it’s inevitable, but am I ready for that?
Asking my Popo to make her soup whenever I visited her house was the closest way I could say to her that “I love being loved by you.” And in her making it for me, it was how she expressed “I love loving you” to me. Selfishly, I have always relished being the receiver. I recognized that I wasn’t ready for that to end, and accepted that I may never be. Eventually, I fought through the intrusive thoughts that come with anticipatory grief, I reminded myself that she was still very healthy, and mustered up the courage to dial her number. As we talked, it turned out that the recipe only had three basic ingredients and was incredibly simple to make, which made me feel a little silly for getting so worked up about it. I suppose that goes to show that the rollercoaster of emotions I was experiencing was never really about the soup.
As I wrote down my Popo’s kuah merah recipe, I told myself that I was engaging in the ultimate defiance of time and mortality. From here on out, the soup was infinite. Telling myself that made me feel braver. Through that phone call, I learned that she didn’t make this recipe herself – it was a dish that her mother made for her. For her, it is her mother’s soup. While I might never have met my Popo’s mother, or her mother before, I like to believe that I am tasting versions of dishes they’ve created for the ones they loved too. And that eventually, those dishes evolved and made their way to dining tables of the members of my generation.
I want my grandmother to always be around to make this soup for me, but I know that’s not possible. For now, all I can do is continue to ask her to make the soup for as long as I can and cherish the flavours with every spoonful. And now, knowing how to make the soup hopefully means I can recreate and hold onto a piece of this love forever. While it’s inevitable that our loved ones are not always going to physically be with us, a single taste of a dish that they’ve made for you can feel awfully close to replicating the intensity of their love. Perhaps someday these flavours will outlive me too.
Ayam Kuah Merah
1 whole chicken (preferrably ayam kampung)
1 tablespoon of angkak
Water, as needed
Salt to taste
1 inch of ginger (optional)
- If your chicken is not already broken down, first break down the chicken into its different parts; wings, legs, backbone, breast, drumsticks, and thighs (including the head and feet if available).
- Place the chicken in a medium pot, and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam and impurities with a mesh sieve and reduce heat to a simmer.
- Simmer until the chicken is tender, around 45 – 60mins.
- Add the angkak, and continue to simmer for at least 2 hours.
- Turn off the heat, and add salt to taste. Use a ladle to serve.