Childhood picture books, stories and TV shows that depicted food and dining made a real impression on me. Illustrations of steaming bowls of pasta or a piece of toast smothered in purple jam gave me my first taste of foods I’d yet to try, and are sometimes still the archetypes I hold food up to today. Instead of simply reminisce, I’m going to bring those dishes to life the way I imagined they’d be.

This is a story of a meal that I tasted first at home, not tastes imagined after being influenced by books or media, as with the other recipes in this particular column. I laid eyes on the book Chicken Soup and Rice after years of eating more than my share of bowlfuls.

The way I remember it, we–my cousin and I who grew up in a household of parents, aunts, grandparents–were expected to eat fish curries and rotis and whatever the adults were eating, for sure. But like any kids, we could be picky, and like any busy adults, there were times they just couldn’t force us to eat more/worry about how little we’d eaten/deal.with.us. At times like those, we were fed “soup and rice”.

Soup-and-rice, said more as one, three-syllable word, referred to salty, packaged, instant chicken noodle soup (which I never tired of and was sure to eat), with cooked white rice stirred in (always on hand as in any Asian household) to fortify the meal and to reassure our family that we fed. To appease us, they often made two packets of soup, strained the noodles out of one and added them to our broth and rice and that measly amount of noodles from just one package. The short, soft and slippery noodles were the treat that always got us to finish our bowls. I developed rituals where I managed to eat as much noodle-less spoonfuls of rice, drink the broth and be left with a glut of the reserved noodles at the bottom, hoarded in 5 minutes to be enjoyed in 5 greedy seconds.

That was pleasure enough but then, in one of the earliest examples I can recall, I saw something I was used to eating depicted elsewhere! Someone else put rice in their soup!? It might not seem like much but it was a validation of sorts. Perhaps you’ll understand why if I tell you that when I was finally allowed to eat lunch at school (I hated being walked home for lunch when all of my friends got to bond at the lunch tables) my mom and I had to learn about cold-cuts and what actually might comprise a child’s lunchtime sandwich (her use of bread was largely confined to spreading chilies on it). I felt out of touch with the rituals and foods of a country I was born in and one that, though culturally diverse, still sent their kids to school with oddly identical lunches. Kids who knew instinctively how to order food on “hot dog day” and knew what they liked on their pizza. Finding a book about soup and rice was a taste of something familiar and some sort of nod to what went on in my home. This might have been my earliest taste of what it was to have my food–therefore my culture–therefore a large part of me–acknowledged.

Chicken Soup and Rice words and photos by Maurice Sendak.

Aside from all of that, the book had so much more appeal. I mean just look at this book! How fun! I love Maurice Sendak, as an author and as a honest, sometimes crusty, brilliant person. I love that this book is a book of months, in which each spawns a different season to enjoy chicken soup and rice, in the sea, with March winds knocking over and lapping up your bowls, and for having irreverant sentences like

“Whoppie once, Whoppie twice, Whoopie Chicken Soup and Rice!”

And, you know that being meat-free now, I had to come up with a way to recreate my first taste of that dehydrated soup. You can use and make any broth you’d like, of course, add any grain and any shape of pasta. The bowl of soup I remember and love might only be perfect to me because of my memories, but I think it’s more than that. This is not a tomato-based broth, it’s more subtle which I think is necessary to allow you to focus on the rice and noodles. And the basmati rice (my choosing, though par-boiled was the staple of the original) alongside these short noodles–small shards instead of shells…that’s about the texture and the experience of both “strands” swimming over your tongue and you choosing to chew on rice and swallow noodles in different mouthfuls. I added vegetable marrow dusted with Parmesan and breadcrumbs, gratinned for 3 minutes under the broiler to break things up a little. Croutons would be just as nice, or almost anything really. It all comes back to the simplicity of this soup, which, as both Maurice and I assure you, is always nice.

 

Soup and Rice

1.5 L non-tomato-based vegetable broth (or chicken if you should chooose), or 1L + 500ml of water
2 trimmed celery stalks
1 medium carrot, peeled
1 leek, cleaned and halved, white and light green part, only
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
100 g smallest soup noodles (thin, short Felini no.86 is my preference)
1 c cooked rice
Gratineed vegetables, cubed and dusted with oil, grated cheese and breadcrumbs, or croutons for topping (optional)
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving (optional)

Add celery, carrot, leek, rosemary and bay leaf to the broth and bring to a boil in a large pot. Cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and simmer for another 10-15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove vegetables and enjoy on the side (they may be quite soft but that will also render them sweeter than ever and enjoyable piled onto buttered bread, for instance). Add noodles to simmering soup and cook for 3 minutes. (If gratineeing any vegetables, place them on a small tray and place under broiler now.)

Ladle soup and noodles into bowls (be generous with the noodles!) and add rice and stir through. Top with gratineed vegetables, croutons and/or Parmesan cheese if using and serve.

Serves 4-6.