Monday, February 1, 2016

Oriental Aromatic Broth

Yes, I am a monkey. At least that's how they would call me in China. And my animal is coming knocking at the door, in all its fiery glory. In the Chinese zodiac, one's animal comes every twelve years, so when such thing happens, one ought to celebrate. One would think so, right? The correct answer is "No". Apparently, things do not quite work that way. Possessed by a major attack of weird logic, Chinese astrologers have decided that a monkey year is not an auspicious event in a life of a monkey person, and I am now facing a prospect of, mildly put, twelve months of unpleasantness.

I am a scientist, and obviously do not believe in this kind of silly black magic, but when a double monkey-thing happens, one ought to pay attention. I am. I spent last weekend in Chinatown, hunting for amulets and good luck objects -- red lanterns, blossoms and kumquats included. And tangerines too. I am keeping a laughing Buddha in my bedroom and a lucky cat in my office -- or is it the opposite (???) -- I better check. And I am making aromatic broth. Because in my book, nothing oozes good luck like a bowl of good old aromatic broth.

I stumbled upon the concept of aromatic broth many years ago entirely by accident. I was surfing the cyberspace late in the night, aimlessly, you know the kind of thing one does when one comes home from a long day at work and is entirely wasted, so rather than staring at the white wall, one turns the computer on and lets the mouse-clicks take over; and one walks a random walk through the infinite Internet universe, click, click, hop, hop, from one page to another, hop, hop, click, click, until it is finally time to go to bed.

Once upon a time, instead of cyberhopping, I used to binge watch, just like the rest of mankind: Scandal, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, The Black List... But this world has turn seriously vile, and the front page of New York Times and my Twitter feed are where all the action is now. Let us consider only the recent stream of events... Yes, Ebola might be over, but a virus that causes babies to be born with miniature heads has taken abode in the home of the Olympics. (Come on, even the most creative of Hollywood screenwriters could not have come up with this.) How about a leader of a major world power, killing his enemies with radioactive plutonium? The planet is getting warmer with every breath that we take, blizzards are growing bigger by the minute, and natural disasters do not follow the law of rare numbers anymore. And the shootings... Compared to what's going on in this world, The Black List looks like a Muppet show. No, I do not binge watch anymore because primetime TV is boring, and I do not read news any more, because I get scared. Cyberhopping is all that's left.

Which is how I stumbled upon a thread about a fifty-year-old soup. Can you imagine? A broth that lasts half a century! A braising material that keeps on getting reused, over and over and over again, and never thrown away! A broth that reincarnates like Buddha! I was hooked at a mere notion of it. Then I saw the list of ingredients and became possessed. The list of spices that made for this golden liquid was longer than the spice route, more elaborate than the Chinese alphabet, and more complicated then their numerals.

Fuchsia Dunlop writes about lu shui, the Chinese aromatic broth, or master broth in her wonderful cookbooks The Land of Plenty and The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. "In the markets of Hunan, as in other parts of China, you will always find stalls selling meat, poultry, bean curd, and other tidbits that have been simmered in a rich and aromatic stock, lu shui," Fuchsia writes in the introduction to her recipe, "The master broth is traditionally kept indefinitely, boiled up and strained every day, and replenished with salt and spices as necessary." I am not a great master of Chinese cuisine and I generally stick with what Fuchsia has to say. Her lu shui recipe has served me well, and over the years provided a poaching and braising vehicle for many fine dishes: chicken breast, duck, beef, veggies, and my favorite -- salmon. (Although, in the spirit of full disclosure, I never got the courage to use the broth more than a couple of times in a row.)

Once I mastered the concept, I began experimenting. I can't help it, I am a scientist and experimentation is the essence of my scientific soul! Experimental failures and departures from the main idea have led to some of the greatest discoveries of mankind, such as X-rays, penicillin, the Big Bang and Viagra. And it has led me to my Oriental Aromatic Broth. It might be presumptuous to call this soup a discovery, but it's a soup that makes me happy. It's definitely not lu shui, because I took out some of its key ingredients -- Shaoxing wine and caramel, and subbed them with port, red wine and a drop of vinegar, and I kept the amount of spices under moderation. It might not be even called Chinese, because I've taken some liberties here. Perhaps one can call it fusion, bit I really detest that word, so let us please forget that I just said it. I like Oriental Broth better. Far East and Along the Spice Road also do it justice. Regardless of the name, I hope you'll like it. Most importantly, unlike lu shui, which is a braising liquid, this soup is meant to be slurped. It is designed to be enjoyed on its own, in a bowl, or a mug: a big aromatic slurp of feel better when one's spirits are down, a big slurp of spice love when one's heart is sinking, and a big slurp of good luck in the eve of a double monkey situation.

Hóunián sòng nǐ wǔzhī hóu:
jīling guǐmì rú míhóu,
jiànkāng kuàilè xiàng mǎhóu,
yōuxián fùguì shì hóuzi,
wúyōu wúlǜ bǐ yuánhóu,
cōngmíng línglì shèng sūnhóu.

This Monkey year, I give you five monkeys:
the ingenuity of the macaque,
the health and happiness of the monkey,
the leisure and wealth of monkey-kind,
the lightheartedness of apes and monkeys,
and intelligence and wit surpassing the Monkey King.

Oriental Aromatic Broth

* 5 cups homemade base stock (see the recipe below)
* 1/4 tsp white peppercorns
* 1/4 tsp black peppercorns, like Tellicherry
* 1/2 tsp coriander
* 4 cardamom pods
* 1/2 tsp fennel seed
* 1 star anise
* a couple of pieces of casia bark (about 1 tsp)
* 4 cloves
* 3 pieces of dried licorice
* 2 bay leaves
* a pinch of cumin seed (but just a pinch really)
* a pinch of anise seed (ditto)
* 1 sprig of thyme
* 2-3 sprigs of parsley
* a knob of ginger (1/2-inch)
* small piece of tangerine peel (from about 1/4 of a tangerine)
* 2 tbsp port
* 2 tbsp red wine
* 2 tbsp light soy sauce
* 1 tsp red wine vinegar
* salt (if needed, but I find that soy sauce usually gives just the right amount of saltines)

Heat a small cast iron skillet over medium heat and add black and white peppercorns, coriander and cardamom. Toast them briefly, let them cool and crack them gently with a pestle or another heavy object.

In a small pot combine the base stock with all other ingredients. Bring to a simmer, and maintain at close to no simmer for about 12 - 15 minutes. Pour the broth into individual bowls through a strainer, and serve.

Serves 4

The Base Stock

Aromatic broth is really only as good as the base stock you are using. I do not recommend making it with a store-bought material, because it just does not work. I like what this simple pork bone stock -- the most under-appreciated stock of all -- does to my oriental soup.

* 6 lbs pork bones
* 1 gallon cold water
* 1/4 cup cider vinegar
* 1 1/2 lb onions
* 1 1/2 lb carrots
* 1 lb parsnips
* 4 oz celery root
* 3 small cloves of garlic
* salt

Preheat the oven to 400F. Arrange the bones in a roasting pan in one layer and roast until the bones are nicely browned, for about 45 minutes.

Reduce the oven temperature to 200F.

Put the bones into a large stockpot. Deglaze the pan with a little bit of water (I sometimes use sherry or white wine) and add to the pot. Cover the bones generously with cold water, add the cider vinegar and a pinch of salt. Put the pot, uncovered, in the oven and forget about it for another 12 - 16 hours. (The water should not boil, it should not even simmer.)

When the clock ticks the 16th hour (or 12th, or anywhere in between -- it's up to you,) peel and wash the vegetables. Cut the onion into quarters. Cut the parsnip, carrot and celery root into 2-inch chunks. Add the vegetables to the pot, return to the oven and infuse for another 1 - 1 1/2 hours. The stock will be clear pale yellow, the color of light hay.

Strain the stock through a fine mesh strainer lined with two to three layers of cheesecloth. Season gently with salt (or not, it depends whether you like your base stock salty or not, I find that I like mine with a touch of salt.) Discard the solids. Store in the fridge for a couple of days, or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

Yields 10-12 cups


  1. So you are a monkey, well I don't know or understand why they would not celebrate the year of the monkey like they do every other animal in the Chnese zodiac. Your aromatic and utterly delicious broth is a wonderful way of celebrating. You weave a beautiful story to go with this amazing broth, you are such an amazing artist.

    1. Thank you, and you are an amazing friend! I too was convinced that a year of your sign is an utterly good thing, until I googled a little, and now keeping my fingers crossed :)

  2. Aleksandra,
    I am so happy that Suzanne has introduced me to your brilliant blog!

  3. The news scare me a lot, and I try to limit my exposure as much as I can... but fortunately, there are blogs like yours that are the perfect antidote. :)

  4. Hello Alexandra, how fortunate I am to have met you through the wonderful and amazing Suzanne! Your writing, photography, and cooking skills just blow me away! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your journey in the making of the Aromatic Broth. My name is Kathryn (aka KR Big Fish, aka anotherfoodieblogger) but my cyberfriends call me just KR) :) I look forward to seeing your new posts and contest recipes over at Food52! ~KR

    1. KR, it's so great to meet you!!! I look forward to checking out your blog (on my way there as I type), and I hope that we stay in touch :)

    2. I am looking forward to exploring yours too! I have it bookmarked so I can get back to later. I'm still "at work" (working from home today) and have about another hour to go as I'm on the West Coast. I can't wait to see what gems I find over there, yay!

    3. Hey, I am too still in the office, unfortunately for me, on the East Coast :) A while back it was work life balance, now it's work life integration. Cheers!

  5. Oh wow, that's a bummer. I used to work 60-70 hour weeks at this company, but when they started laying off some of our best people who had been there for over 20 years (including my best friend!) I put my foot down. I do 40 now and maybe 45 if we are in a pinch, but that's it. I just tell them I am more efficient than others, HA! I hope you can find your work-life balance soon. xo

  6. I must confess that I am a regular reader. As not so passionate chef, I was having minimalist approach to cooking. But now I have Vanilice ingredients, and also my Christmas pineapple cheesecake was good. All this joy and magic, nice words and great stories that double monkey situation could never break. So glad we met after long time. Greetings from Belgrade:)

    1. Thank you for being a "regular" and thank you for letting me know! Re cooking: as far as I am concerned, some of the best dishes are very minimal :) Puno, puno pozdrava!

  7. Hi Aleksandra, found your site through Suzanne’s. Love your blog. I’ve just started making broths myself. So nice to meet you.

    1. Hi Cheri -- it's such a pleasure to meet you. And thanks for stopping by. I look forward to staying in touch.


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