After a long weekend of travel, my sister came home to the family farm with a seasonal cold. My mother made a couple of chicken soups, which were delicious, and put us all in the mood for more. With the tail end of my sister’s bedrest I picked up a new cookbook, A Cook’s Journey to Japan, and flipped through the soup section. My eye was caught by keihan, a chicken soup served over rice.
The Amami Islands are an archipelago off the southern coast of Kyushu. Their relative isolation over history has lead to a unique culture, with interesting features like single character first names, shimauta folk music and a cuisine that can’t be beat. In the Edo Period, Amami was used mostly for sugar production. This monoculture, as is often the case, meant that the region was susceptible to famines. This however did not stop them from creating keihan, a dish that was originally made in the Edo Period for visiting government officials. Perhaps at first it was only eaten by dignitaries, but today it is a very popular dish throughout the islands.
I recommend it as a great meal if you’re having people over, (not just government officials!) because not only is it super impressive that you make the whole thing from scratch, but the way it is served is excellent for personalization. Each person is given a bowl of rice with the broth poured over it and a plate with the “toppings”. This includes shredded chicken, marinated shiitake mushrooms, pickled ginger, lemon zest, shredded nori, green onions and other optional ingredients. This means that each person can put whatever they would like in their soup, so if you really don’t care for green onions, you can leave them on the plate.
Another boon to it as a diner party meal is that the broth and chicken can be made the day before, then all you have to do on the day of is heat up and cut the other ingredients. What could be better than more time to tidy up and do your place settings? And even though it’s a simple meal to make, people’s jaws will drop when they see what you’ve done.
I’ve grown up eating lots of chicken soup (after all, my family are French-Canadian), but I’ve never had a soup quite like this. Light broth, tender chicken, the sweet bite of the pickled ginger and the freshness of the green onions and lemon zest. I could eat ten bowls of it.Now that the weather is getting quite chilly, I hope you’ll enjoy making some warm soups, I know I will!
Until next time, remember that learning to make Japanese food can give you pretty awesome bragging rights.