Sunday, March 25, 2012

How To Make Soup In A Hotel Room Kettle

I’ve always been amazed how good food tastes when you’re hungry, and this was no exception. I got back late to my hotel room, absolutely famished. None of the restaurants were open. So I decided to cook myself something using the $4 kettle I’d bought from the market. It was my second attempt at cooking in a kettle after the pleasures of the duck eggs I’d boiled up earlier. In fact, they were the only thing I’d eaten all day.

I’d been planning on boiling, or ‘kettling’ to give the cooking technique its proper name, some diced potatoes and sliced snake beans, and then serving them with a few slices of corned beef and tomato for my next experiment - a recipe Bruce had highly recommended.

“I have a couple of slices with my potatoes, which I cook in my hotel room with my little electric kettle, with some slices of cucumber and tomato, and I always bring a genuine pot of English mustard when I fly in from Australia - I’m in heaven!”

He used to bring Colman’s Mustard wrapped in cling film, smuggled in with his hand language, along with a stash of Oxo cubes he’d sometimes hand to restaurants to make gravy for his pies. I hadn’t even got any of the cheap, nasty, vinegary Dijon stuff French expats like out here as they stretch out their invalidity benefits.

But when I picked up the tin of corned beef, I saw the key had fallen off. I wasn’t going to search for a tin opener at 4am on an unlit street in Cambodia, and the handle of my large Thai knife that said “Kiwi Brand” on the label, but had “Kiwi Brandy” engraved on the blade, was far too flimsy to stab into the tin.

So I decided to jump that stage and go for soup. Bruce told me he normally just puts a centimetre of water in the kettle, pours in a tin of Heinz soup and simmers it for five minutes, stirring all the time with his wooden spoon.

I had two potatoes, a tomato, four red chillies, a handful of snake beans, an onion, and no tin, or not one I could open anyway. But I still had the napkin of salt and pepper I’d got from the cafe across the road. It didn’t look too promising, but I was too hungry to care.

Then I remembered the head of garlic I’d been using in the ridiculous belief it would ward off snakes. Someone had found a small one in one of the rooms. It must have wriggled under the door, and I was on the bottom floor and was taking no chances. When I heard that a backpacker had been sunbathing on the balcony when a large serpent had crawled over the back of her legs, I’d have taken any advice on the matter.

So I found myself listening when a Khmer friend told me that snakes don’t like garlic. They don’t go near the stuff, apparently. I don’t know if it’s the sight or smell. I didn’t ask. It was hard enough getting that much. But she said many people in her village left garlic around in their houses, especially during the rainy season when rising waters bring huge pythons and other serpents to the area.

Perhaps the snake had come up through the toilet? And how big did they mean by ‘small’? A small one wouldn’t have been able to get up there, would it? I checked, and the toilet lid was still down. Then I put a couple of books on top just to make sure.

I staggered around the badly-lit room for a bit looking in the corners, while trying to think of something else, anything else, then remembered what I was doing, and poured 250ml of water into the kettle. Not that I had a measuring jug or anything. I know because I used pretty much all of a 330ml bottle, and when I downed the rest there was little more than a triple in there. You wouldn’t complain about the measure, put it that way.

But the problems started when I tried to switch on the kettle. I kept wiggling the lead in the socket, but the red light wouldn’t go on. It was much worse than last time. For minutes I tried, changing plug socket and pushing the lead into all sorts of contortions, until I found that the light went on briefly if I jammed the socket upwards and twisted slightly. The dodgy electrics roared up, the light went on, then off, then stayed on again for a minute.

But every time I let go, the lead fell out of the kettle. I jammed a pen under the socket but it was too wide. Eventually I found the perfect device - one of those tiny toothpaste tubes they give you in hotels. The light stayed on. And then the water slowly started to bubble.

I used a ledge by the sink to deal with the vegetables, listening out for the faint, pleasing roar of the kettle. In my drunken haze, with my stomach gurgling and the fan making its wheezing, scraping noise, it was difficult to hear the kettle from the bathroom. I darted out a few times, delighted each time I saw the red light still on. I lifted the lid and the water was bubbling cheerfully.

Normally, most soups in Cambodia are started by heating water in a pan, and adding a little sugar, salt, fish sauce or prahok, and maybe some slices of galangal, garlic, onion or shallot, and one or two kaffir lime leaves, and a couple of whole or sliced lemon grass stalks to start the broth before you add vegetables, meat or fish. Then when it’s cooked, you season again and top each bowl with fried garlic, chopped culantro, and sliced spring onion tops.

All I had was salt, pepper, chilli and garlic. But I knew that adding salt at the start as the Cambodians do, would mean it’d take longer because salt makes water boil at a higher temperature. That meant more strain on the kettle, and it must have taken 20 minutes just to get a faint bubble, and the light had already gone off a couple of times even with the toothpaste tube wedged under the socket. I’d put the salt and pepper in at the end.

I went back into the bathroom and examined the veg. I’d stupidly left them tied up in plastic bags on the spare bed, because I didn’t want ants running up and down the walls. They’ll eat anything those bastards - even toothpaste. But it had done nothing for the vegetables.

The snake beans were now a putrid, sludgy grey and looked more like a bag of mouldy prahok. And one of the potatoes was rotten. I sliced the peel off the good potato, cutting on a split, plastic bag on the sink. I thinly sliced it and carefully added the pieces to the kettle, a few at a time, terrified that any ripple would knock the socket out.

Then I roughly chopped the onion and added it gingerly. I cut off the few remaining green bits from the snake beans. There was hardly anything there. But I sliced them anyway, thinking it would be good for the colour. Then I did the same with the tomato. I chopped up two of the four chillies and added the lot to the kettle.

It was bubbling away nicely and the potatoes were softening. Then I sliced hunks from four cloves of garlic and added them. The light went off a few more times, so I was too scared to stir much. Not just because I was worried about the jolting, but because I only had a metal fork to stir with.

Then I started hearing cracking noises. The bed-side cupboard had a glass top, or at least it looked and felt like glass, and the plastic base of the kettle was set on that. But I couldn’t see any cracks or fractures. I looked at the new sign on the bathroom door. It hadn’t been there the last time I stayed.

I stood there swaying, more hungry than drunk, counting down the minutes until the veg was cooked. The smell was incredible. It’s amazing what hunger does to your taste buds. There’s nothing like building up an appetite on a Sunday morning walk and then finishing it off with a decent roast in a proper pub. The anticipation is everything.

I wondered if they were thinking the same down the corridor. I looked at rule six on the wall: “Please do not cock or use iron in your room and smoking in bed is not advesable.” I lifted the lid carefully. The potatoes had broken up nicely, thickening the soup, which had now taken on a light brownness I hadn’t notice at first with the poor lighting. There was another crack. Or was it a scrape? I looked at the glass top again, and then checked the books on the toilet.

Surely the surface was designed for a kettle? In any other hotel for the same price, you’d get a cup and saucer. Sometimes a couple of biscuits, or a sachet of sugar to eat as well. I was starving. I gave it another careful stir. I pulled the socket out and gave the kettle a few shakes, then stabbed the potatoes and tomato with the fork to break them up more. I added some salt and pepper and waited for the soup to cool.

It was hard to judge the seasoning. I didn’t know what ratio of salt to pepper was in the mix. And when I licked my finger and dabbed one side of the napkin it was mainly pepper, but then I’d try another side and it smacked pleasantly of salt. But there was definitely far more pepper.

I’d done the cafe manoeuvre so quickly, it was impossible to know, and with the white background of the napkin you had no hope of spotting the salt-rich areas, especially in that light. It’d have to have a very peppery kick to get the salt right.

I’d written about this before, about how when I was training to be a chef, they taught me to season the soup at the end, gradually adding pinches of salt and pepper until the flavour was perfect. They lectured me about how adding salt in gradual stages has a peculiar effect on soup – it suddenly turns from an amalgam of competing flavours to a clear taste in just a few granules. There’s a section on it in Herve This' book Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavour. This did experiments with salt by giving people seasoned and unseasoned soups. Without the salt, they found it difficult identifying the type of soup it was.

It was certainly true of my veggie broth - it didn’t taste of anything. I gave the kettle a good stir and added more seasoning, and tried it again. It needed far more salt. I chopped up the other two chillies and threw them in, and added more of what I now knew was basically pepper.

I stirred again, and tried another mouthful. I was trying to eat soup with a fork. It had come to this. I had one of those moments when you look at yourself and wonder what happened, and then try to shrug it off by thinking it might make an eBook. It needed to be thicker, otherwise I’d just be eating veg in a thin coating of broth.

I let the kettle sit there for another few minutes, cooling and thickening, as I forked the veg. I would have done anything for some bread, a couple of thickly-buttered hunks of granary crust, seasoned with celery salt and a dusting of cayenne pepper. Not that it needed extra spice. The soup was explosive already, but it could still take some more salt. I added another handful of pepper mix. The chilli and pepper came at you like wild dogs, one distracting as the other took hold, and soon the sweat was running down my face. It was absolutely delicious.

I was so hungry, I wolfed it down, trying to lap up as much of the broth as I could with the prongs of the fork. As I got further down, I began swigging from the kettle, swilling it round like a mug. Then as I got lower, I noticed black marks at the bottom where the veg had caught.

It was a salutary lesson in the much overlooked art of hotel room cooking. But if anything, it had given the soup a slightly caramelised taste, the sort of notes you get from frying a white mirepoix of onions, celery, garlic and leek whites for 30 minutes. Not to that colour admittedly. I’d be sacked for doing that. But I was cooking in an almost unfurnished hotel room using a kettle with a dodgy socket. I told myself that the autumnal colour was not just down to burning, but the generous handfuls of pepper.

I finished the soup with sweat running down my chest and back, and I’d begun hiccupping from the pepper. Even sitting directly in front of the second fan I’d convinced them to give me made no difference. I had one can of beer left but it was far too warm too drink.

I tipped the last bits of soup I couldn’t fork down the sink, and washed the vessel out as best I could with the tap trickling away like an incontinent mouse. Then I filled the kettle with water, remembering the way Bruce had told me to self-clean it, and tried to connect the lead again.

I dried my hands and wiggled away for a few minutes, but there wasn’t even a flash of light this time. I gave up and put the kettle back in the bathroom. I thought that old woman at the market had a smile on her face.

MORE: Wake Up To A Full Cambodian: Chicken Porridge Soup

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Chippy said...

Get a new cable! I'm self-interestedly concerned that this post will be your last.

Herve This will doubtless tell you that 10g (2 tsp) of salt in 1 litre of water only increases the boiling point by 0.17°C. It's about the same change as a drop of 20m in elevation.


Lucas said...

Just need a electric kettle for that, and a pack of instant soup. :)