Life in a bowl of soup

A word of caution. Significant time alone and inanimate objects might start speaking to you.

I can attest to that. First it was a tote bag, now it’s soup.

‘Chicken Soup for the Soul 2.0’ this is not. It is what I learnt about life from making soup.

During a long holiday in the States recently, I learnt to make Cantonese soups. Full of depth, sparkling clarity, they are pure silky goodness. In my two months away, I made soup about twenty times. My fingers have been fully uploaded with the steps, motions and timings.

Principles before process

I had made soup 10–15 times when I learnt I had gotten some fundamental things wrong.

Mistake 1: I had been using the wrong dried scallops. Base ingredients for many Cantonese soup: Dried scallops, dried mushrooms, honey dates and onions. Use the best ingredients you can to ensure a sweeter, more rounded soup. My mistake — seeing the scallops as another ingredient to check off and buying the cheapest, bottom of the barrel stuff.

Mistake 2: Using water from the kettle to start the soup. This water was not hot enough. The water had to be bubbling to be optimal to infuse the ingredients. The correct thing to do was taking the extra step to boil the water up on the stove before putting everything in.

Before this point, I was pretty smug and convinced I had this soup making thing down pat. No kidding, I had this vivid image of standing in front of my own soup business one day in a MasterChef pose. Imagine my embarrassment when my mistakes were pointed out. It revealed a rush to learn the process but a neglect to absorb core principles behind the steps:
- Use the best ingredients you have
- Prepare well at each stage to get the most from what you are doing
- The devil is in the details

On periods of transition and change

The basic soup making process requires high heat at the beginning. You cook any meat you use for 25–30 minutes to remove impurities. Then, assemble the ingredients and boil at high heat for 30 minutes covered before letting the soup finish at lower temperatures.

In the beginning, I didn’t understand how to manage the heat especially when the water bubbled over. I would lift the lid often and stare blankly at the boiling ingredients or lower the heat. Water would evaporate fast into the greedy surroundings. The right thing to do was not to turn the heat down or lift the lid completely. You keep the heat up and tilt the lid a little to let some pressure out but minimise liquid loss.

The pressure can be great in times of transition because you are facing the unfamiliar. EXPECT the high heat. Don’t run away, face it. Let some pressure out when you need to but maintain momentum. It is part of the process and as they say, “This too shall pass”.

After the initial high heat, the heat is reduced such that the soup is still bubbling above a simmer. Depending on the ingredients, you might let it boil out for one and a half to two hours. This wrings the flavour out of the ingredients, infusing the soup with nourishment and soul. You cannot rush it. Boil it for too short a time and you get a thin soup that lacks depth, wasting all the prep work that went in. Pressure is often followed by a long period of simple hard work or what Steven Furtick calls ‘the Grind’. It might be boring or soul-sapping but it builds endurance, patience and depth.

Action trumps feeling

The most tender lesson came when I returned to Singapore.

A family situation left me in a state of rage and deep anguish. The incident left me wordless and loveless towards another family member. I did not want to speak or connect. In my anger and exhaustion, bizarrely and automatically I made soup!

In the hot afternoon heat, the emotions that would not flow came out. My tears in my perspiration, my frustration through the boiling steam. The final product nourished our mortal bodies . More than that I hope it conveyed deep affection and love, when love was too angry to speak. For me, it was a subconscious example on how to love when I could not find the words.

The profound is often in the simple, mundane. I didn’t expect anything when I started making soup. It was a gradual and accidental surrender to a process. I’m so glad at what I gleaned. Time to make (and drink) more soup.

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