As a child, I thought chicken soup was particular to Croatian cuisine. Our family consumed it with such fervent regularity it approached worship. In my defence, I lived a sheltered life — which is to say I didn't get out much.
I know better these days, and have flirted with pho, a lemony Greek avgolemono, Jewish 'penicillin' soup with matzo balls and a gingery Chinese wonton soup. But whenever I feel under the weather, it's this chicken soup, served first by my baba, and then by my parents, which I hanker for.
It's a simple enough recipe. All you need is some chicken on the bone, a few celery sticks, carrots and parsley, a handful of peppercorns and an onion or two blackened on the hob. Throw it all together, cover it with water, simmer for an hour or two until your home is filled with the wonderful aroma of cooked chicken, and watch as alchemy happens.
That simple list of ingredients, by themselves not much at all, is magicked into liquid gold: a pot of bone-thawing, soul-warming goodness and for me, the taste of home.
Of all the Croatian dishes my parents made, and there were many — I'm looking at you stuffed cabbage roll, fish head soup, paprika chicken and fazol bean soup — this chicken soup was the one I whinged about and liked in equal measure.
Sounds odd, I know, but when you're made to eat a dish as much as we were, you'll understand this picket line attitude. To my parents (and the rest of the Luksic clan), it could be scorching hot, just gone breakfast, in the middle of a cyclone and we'd still be made to eat a bowl of the stuff. I may be exaggerating a little. Sydney isn't prone to cyclones.
What I can tell you is this fervour extended beyond our family. The weekly zabava - dance gatherings - at the Croatian club in Punchbowl in Sydney's southwest and King Tomislav Soccer Club, further west in Edensor Park, were also mad for the stuff. Between traditional kola dances and bad covers of Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode (the only English-speaking song the band could play), we kids dutifully slurped bowls of soup while eyeing off plates of grilled cevapcici and raznici pork skewers.
"That simple list of ingredients, by themselves not much at all, is magicked into liquid gold: a pot of bone-thawing, soul-warming goodness and for me, the taste of home."
Our family was small back then. My dad and grandparents arrived in Australia from the migrant camps in Italy in 1956. The rest of the Luksic clan soon followed, selling my grandparents farm to pay for their passage. Family weddings and christenings were simple affairs, held in local community halls, with the catering done by my aunts and cousins.
Days would pass in a flurry of cake baking. There'd be layered sponges, denser concoctions, cream horns and sugar-dusted biscuits. The adults would slow cook pork on the spit, roast some chooks and grab a bucket of KFC for us kids. But without fail, come time to eat, a bowl of chicken soup, flecked with parsley and bright orange discs of carrot, would appear before me at my seat.
My baba added semolina dumplings to her soup. She'd drop teaspoonfuls of thick batter into the mix and simmer them until they were plump and drunk with liquid. My parents included egg noodles; they'd drizzle a batter of flour and egg into the boiling stock. The thin yellow squiggles cooked quickly, swirling and gathering in clumps until there was no room to add more.
If you know a Croatian, you'll know a vegetable stock brand called Vegeta is our jam. While you can use salt and pepper, I always add a spoonful or two for added depth and kick. It brings everyone in the house to the kitchen.
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Photographs by Belinda Luksic
My family's chicken soup
- 1.5 kg whole chicken
- 2 celery stalks, roughly chopped
- 3 carrots, peeled
- 2 brown onions, peeled and blackened on an open flame
- 4 stalks parsley, plus extra to serve
- 6 peppercorns
- 1 egg
- 50 g semolina
- Pinch of salt
- 1 egg
- 2 tbsp flour
- Place chicken, celery, carrots, onion, parsley and peppercorns in a saucepan and cover with cold water.
- Bring to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 90 minutes until the chicken is cooked.
- Remove the chicken and strain the stock. Reserve the carrots and discard the remaining solids.
- Season the soup with salt or add a teaspoon or two of Vegeta.
- Slice the carrots and return to the pot with the clear stock.
- Shred the chicken meat, removing any skin and bones and set aside until serving.
- Now prepare the egg noodles or dumplings.
- For the dumplings, beat the egg with a fork and slowly add the semolina and salt, whisking gently until combined. Leave for a few minutes and if needed, add more semolina. The consistency should be thick and soft, not sticky or runny.
- Bring the stock to a gentle boil. Shape teaspoonfuls of the dumpling mix into an oval shape and gently drop into the pot using another spoon to help.
- Cook until the dumplings triple in size and come to the surface, then remove from heat.
- For egg noodles, beat the egg with a fork and slowly add the flour, whisking until smooth. Add more flour if needed. The consistency should be runny, like pancake batter.
- Bring the soup to a gentle boil and drizzle teaspoonfuls of batter into the stock. Cook for 1-2 minutes then remove from heat.
- Add fresh chopped parsley and rest in the hot soup for a few minutes.
- To serve: add some chicken to a bowl. Ladle over some soup, making sure to include some dumplings or noodles, carrots and parsley.
Vegeta is available at major supermarkets and specialty delicatessens.