Chicken Stew -- Singapore Style

I did something tonight that I haven't done for myself in a long time: I cooked. At the risk of sounding pitiful, most of my dinners at home are of the solo variety (unless I decide to join my husband for Dinner Part Two after he comes home from work, which I will do from time to time, but I just don't think eating at 3am and then sleeping at 4am is very...I dunno, healthy or something). And while I'm perfectly happy baking four cookies at the spur of the moment to meet those critical chocolate needs, I simply can't be bothered to actually cook--i.e., chop onions, peel stuff, sauté, etc.--if the entire production is to be for my benefit alone.

This is probably why tonight, when I pulled out my stash of onions, which I hadn't dipped into since the last time I'd cooked, I was treated to the rather unnerving sight of some serious sprouting--fat, pale-yellow tentacles curling and writhing (it's possible the latter part was just my imagination) and pushing their way out the ends of the slightly shrunken purple globes. It was all so deeply disturbing, and made me almost as squeamish as the time I tried to decapitate a fish with a very cheap knife and my sawing movements were making the fish's gaping mouth open and close like it was moaning, "Ow. Ow. Ow." And all the while, its big glassy eye stared up at me in a rather accusatory manner.

Back to the original story. Tonight I had a big meat craving. Canned tuna strike! On the freak occasion that I cook, I tend to go for one-pot, long-simmering meals: curries, stews, soups, etc., because it suits my cooking style of randomly throwing things together without any need for care or measurement. As for seasoning, I just keep tasting and adjusting until I'm satisfied. I think I developed this preference toward casual cooking because my mother refused to give me recipes with actual measurements, the few times I asked as a young girl. She was of the "Some of This, Bit of That" School.

Here's a short scene, adapted from childhood memories:
Mom: Okay, I need some ginger.
Me: How much?
Mom: Just a bit.
Me: How's this?
Mom: [bursts out laughing] That's much too much.
Me: Okay, is this okay?
Mom: No, more.
Me: This?
Mom: Bit more.
Me: [silent and annoyed, shows mom ginger]
Mom: Mm. Okay.

[Later, after dinner]
Mom: Uck, too much ginger. Next time, better let me do it.

My mom never really got into the whole domestic thing until we moved to Canada, and I know at first she had a rough time, learning to cook and care for three kids. Our first week, she put a frozen pie still in its tin foil plate in the microwave and the thing actually exploded. I'm talking a terrifying boom and then large, shooting flames. She eventually became an incredible cook and one of my favorite things that she'd make was chicken stew, only it wasn't really chicken stew, as I've come to realize over the years.

Of course I did attempt to wheedle the recipe out of my mother, but it was, to quote the woman directly, like trying to draw blood from a dead cat. Her answer, if I recall, was something like, "Oh, it's so easy. You just need some onions, garlic, and ginger. Fry, fry until there's a nice smell. Add chicken, some of this, bit of that..." Yeah, great. Next, I turned to books and the Internet, but no matter how carefully I adhered to the recipe, it was never quite right. The stew always came out this disturbing purplish color from the red wine and the taste was just...wrong.

Later still, I learned that "stew" in Singapore is really not stew as people in Western countries know it--no herbs, no wine. The secret: dark soy sauce.

Messy Bubbling Goodness

And instead of crusty bread, white rice is used to soak up all the rich sauce. Maybe it's because it's the first stew that passed my lips. Maybe others would try this version and be horrified. But I just made it tonight and it was, frankly, delicious (and I rarely use that word with anything I make). Of course I added things that I don't think ordinarily find their way even into a Singaporean stew, but it tasted pretty damn good. Which forces me to add that I don't even know if this can legitimately be called "Singaporean" stew, since I'm sure there are tons of people there who never eat or make it.

I'm afraid most of my measurements are pretty rough, but I'll try my best to recall what I did. Use my notes more as a rough flavor guide than as a recipe to be followed to the "t."

Chicken Stew
(servings: Hmm...4-5?)

1tbl sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 onion*, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped**
1 head of garlic, finely chop two cloves and leave the rest unpeeled***
2-3 tsp finely chopped ginger
4-5 anchovy fillets (packed in oil, but don't use the oil)
1 tsp whole peppercorns****
500g chicken, preferably parts with lots of bones for flavor (and marinated in just a bit of light soy sauce, sugar, pepper, if you like)
2tbl dark soy sauce
1 carrot--I like my carrot chunks about medium size; do whatever you like
Chinese wine
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 sundried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 finely chopped red chilli or 1tsp red chilli sauce

1. In a pot that will hold all the ingredients fairly snugly (but not so crowded that things start flying out if you try to give it a good stir), heat up the oil on medium-high.
2. When the oil is hot (to test, add a piece of onion; when it starts making lots of noise, the oil's ready), add the salt, onion, and celery.
3. Sauté until onions start to soften--about 3-4 minutes.
4. Add the whole garlic cloves, chopped garlic, ginger, anchovy, and peppercorns.
5. Sauté for about a minute or two.
6. Add the chicken and the dark soy sauce, and sauté another minute or two.
7. Okay, you may have noticed there's no measurement for the wine. This is one ingredient I find it really tough to give a quantity for. I simply tip the wine bottle over the pot, sort of circling and dousing everything. Give it a stir. If the bottom of the pot looks dry, keep adding more wine.
8. Add the carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and chilli. Give it a quick stir. Then add just enough water to cover the chicken.
9. Bring to boil. Let simmer, uncovered, until reaches a nice, saucy thickness--about 30-40 minutes.
10. Be sure to taste and check that you're satisfied with the amount of seasoning.
11. Serve with white rice.

About 10 minutes before the rice was ready, I added some white asparagus (skinned and cut in thirds) to the stew. The asparagus was plump and juicy, and absorbed some of the sauce. It was utterly delectable. Then about 3 minutes before everything was done, I added some okra. Purrrrrfect.

*Yes, I used the scary, tentacled onions--what could I do? The stores were all closed by then, and I had to have stew--bravely lopping off and prying out...the bad parts.
**I finely chopped up the celery leaves and set them aside, adding them to the stew around the same time that I added the okra.
***I have a lot of garlic to get rid of; you may use as little as half a head of garlic if you have more genteel taste buds; also, don't worry about the skins of the unpeeled garlic cloves because they mysteriously melt into the stew. You can peel the cloves if you want to, but I believe in an unproved theory that garlic cooked in its skin tastes good. Update: Tonight, my husband fished out a garlic skin--heh, I guess they hadn't magically disapppeared so much as sunk to the bottom of the pot--and looked at me like I'd served him boiled moth wings. So on second thought, peel the damn garlic.
****Although I've been trained since young to accept whole peppercorns swimming around happily in my food, and will readily chew on them without care, I understand that some people aren't used to doing that. Please feel free to put your peppercorns in a little cheesecloth bag or whatnot.

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That stew looks lip-smackingly yummy! Reading your recipe made my mouth water and somehow conjure up the taste of peppercorns. ^^ 

from Tea

4/26/2005 06:47:00 AM  

Hmmm, were you raised to eat whole peppercorns too? 

from Rachel

4/27/2005 12:54:00 PM  

that looks really good - yum! i really like singapore style stews and my mum's guesstimation with ingredients drives me nuts cos then you can't reproduce the recipe again. 

from stef

4/28/2005 02:44:00 AM  

Thanks, Stef! Although my mom's always been very vague about what goes into her cooking, trying to write a precise recipe for this stew was tough! I guess I can understand a little better where she was coming from.  

from Rachel

4/28/2005 02:00:00 PM  

The final product looks great. I just had dinner and my mouth is watering! So there's only 50g of chicken in the whole pot? 

from Lynn

4/29/2005 07:58:00 AM  

Thanks, Lynn! Oops, big mistake: it was supposed to be 500g of chicken. Thanks for pointing that out to me.  

from Rachel

5/02/2005 03:20:00 AM  

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