KitchenTigress: Kiam Chye Ark (Salted Mustard Greens & Duck Soup)

Kiam Chye Ark (Salted Mustard Greens & Duck Soup)

When I was looking at recipes for itek teem, I was surprised at the number of ingredients used for the Nyonya soup.

Various Peranakan adaptations of kiam chye ark had pig's trotters, assam skin, brandy, nutmeg, and even sea cucumber.

These were on top of the kiam chye (pickled mustard greens), ark (duck), pickled plums, and tomatoes found in every recipe, Nyonya or Chinese.

It all seemed a bit over-the-top to me, adding so much stuff.

I also checked out some Chinese recipes, which widened the variety of ingredients used: ginger, garlic, wolfberries (!), dried dates, pork ribs (!), onions, white peppercorns, carrots and, as for Itek Teem, brandy.

After considering the alternatives, I decided to stick to my mother's recipe using only kiam chye, ark, pickled plums, and tomatoes. Yup, just the gang of four which everyone else had; and nothing else, unlike everyone else.

I didn't want to dilute the taste of the duck with pork, or mask it with the pungence of ginger, garlic or onions. Nor did I want to tone down the full blast of the salted mustard greens with dried dates, nutmeg, and whatnots.

I wanted the soup salty and sour with no hint of sweet or bitter. Sea cucumber was a no-no because it would have absorbed rather than enhanced flavours (which is why it's usually braised with flavourful ingredients, such as dried mushrooms).

I didn't need peppercorns since my mother's kiam chye ark was always served with a good dash of ground white pepper. The only candidate left was brandy. Hmm, maybe . . . .

After 90 minutes of patient simmering, my soup (and kitchen) was full of gamey sweetness from the duck. And there was a salty, sourish tang from the pickled mustard greens. The pickled plums and tomatoes were accents in the background, rounding off the robust, bold flavours. It was the hearty soup I grew up with, the kiam chye ark that tasted of kiam chye and ark, unadulterated.

Growing up, it never occurred to me that my mother's kiam chye ark might need any extra ingredient. Now, after pondering over it, I don't think it does. I wouldn't change anything . . . save for maybe a tiny shot of brandy to add a bit of 'oomph'. To me, Mom's kiam chye ark is still the best in the world.

Source: My mother
(Recipe for 6 persons)

220 g 咸菜 (kiam chye, salted mustard greens)
½ duck weighing about 1.1 kg, or 950 g after trimming
2 big pickled plums (30 g; use 3-4 pieces if plums are small), crush or cut to break the skin
1 medium size tomato (120 g), rinse, trim and cut into 6 wedges
1 tbsp brandy, optional
ground white pepper, to taste

🌹 There're two types of salted mustard greens. One is more sour, less salty, and has leaves as well as stems; the other is more salty, less sour, and has only thick stems. Some people refer to both as 咸菜, but the sour one with leaves is actually 酸菜.

1. Rinse kiam chye thoroughly. Cut bite size, slicing thicker leaves at an angle to make thin slices about 2 mm thick. Add enough hot water to just cover. Soak 5 minutes. Drain, without squeezing dry, reserving the water.

2. Chop off duck's rear end if it's still hanging around. Trim skin and fat but leave less fatty skin on the drumstick, thigh and wing. Chop into six pieces (drumstick, thigh, wing, and 3 pieces of breast meat). Blanch in boiling water. Rinse and remove any lingering feathers, with a pair of tweezers if necessary.

3. Put duck, plums and 180 g kiam chye in a pot, tightly packed. Add enough water to cover by 5 cm, about 7½ cups (1.8 litres). Bring to a boil. Simmer very gently, covered, for 45 minutes.

4. Taste and, if not too salty, add remaining kiam chye to taste. Tuck tomato pieces around the pot. Continue simmering very gently till duck is tender, another 45 minutes or so. There should be enough liquid to cover duck and vegetables by about 3 cm. Add more water as necessary, or increase heat to boil rapidly, uncovered, till soup is reduced to desired level.

5. Taste and adjust seasoning with reserved kiam chye water if necessary. Add brandy if using, then cover and simmer 1 minute. Serve with ground white pepper to taste.