Read on for a collection of frugal food stories from mothers and grandmothers closer to home. In collaboration with photographer, Maria Bell, we’ve been touring the UK to share the waste-free wisdom of several British women from diverse backgrounds. This month, I interview chef and best-selling cookbook author, Melissa Hemsley and her wonderful mum Evangelina who talked to me all about growing up in the Philippines, learning to cook when she came to the UK, raising two daughters and her inherently frugal cooking ethos. Sign up to my once-a-month newsletter to get them to your inbox.
“Mum came round the other day with two chickens. Within an hour, she’d jointed them, put one in the oven for chicken adobo [a Filipino coconut chicken traybake] and the other to make my favourite chicken tinola soup, plus spare broth for Nelly”. It’s a Monday morning when we arrive at Melissa’s East London home and it appears today is no exception. Her Staffy sits next to her bowl observing us expectantly. Evangelina is upstairs getting ready for our arrival but already she’s got a huge batch of Bolognese on the go for Melissa to freeze for the week ahead. Chicken stock simmers gently next to it; the beginnings of one of her signature Filipino noodle soups. Into the stock, Melissa has tipped a bag of frozen vegetable scraps along with beetroot ends and carrot peelings from the previous day’s roast; an easy trick to recycle compost waste.
Photography: Maria Bell
Evangelina wanders in, her black hair neatly coiffed, and joins Melissa at the chopping board, picking up a knife and launching into idle conversation, spinning stories that see-saw between childhood anecdotes and Harry and Megan’s latest gossip news. “Filipinos eat a lot of soup, both hot and cold”, she tells me. “This is a bit of a mix of tinola and songathon soups but they mostly all begin with garlic, onion and ginger. The variety in taste depends on the ingredients that you add afterwards”.
In Evangelina’s house, soup is a weekly ritual, a way to rid the fridge of its vegetable odds and ends into a rich, bubbling stock made from Sunday’s chicken carcass or a discount batch of chicken wings. “I still make chicken soup for Melissa, especially if she’s not well, I make broth with the wings and bones. It’s cheaper that way. Meat on the bone is very sweet, and the wings have a lot of skin and flavour”.
This is a ritual I too have encountered many times, cooking with grandmothers and mothers on my search for age-old, waste-free food knowledge. It’s one I’ve seen my own French grandmother repeat and a tradition my mum has continued too, and it makes sense. In any culture that eats chicken, there is a version of chicken soup, the flavour changing from place to place depending on the local vegetable, carb and aromatics available.
Like famous Jewish Penicillin, chicken soups were originally thought up as a way to use hens passed their egg-laying days, boiled up into a broth to avoid wasting them. Spent hens or not, buying the whole bird and using every bit of it was a given just a couple of generations ago when meat was an expensive luxury. These days, packs of factory raised chicken breasts sold for a couple of quid make it easier (although not more humane or necessarily economical) to pick and choose the prime cuts rather than invest the extra on a whole free-range bird.
“I started cooking when I left home”, Melissa is saying above the hiss of frying onions, “Mum would send me instructions, answer my questions. She tests almost all the recipes in my books but she’s not easy to impress. Growing up mum’s mantra was ‘every grain of rice’ whether it was on the plate, fallen onto the table or stuck onto the spoon.” Melissa lists her mum’s thriftiness in the way she makes leftovers taste delicious and seeks bargains, turns gluts of chillies into her infamously hot vinegar, makes dressings straight into nearly-finished mustard jars (to use every last bit), recycles cooking water and saves meat drippings to roast vegetables the next day.
Evangelina shrugs it away. “I just didn’t want to raise you girls to be fussy. It’s good to be adaptable if your luck changes”. Evangelina grew up in the Philippines and came to England in 1976. The year of the heatwave she recalls, on a scholarship with her university. “I went to a very progressive university. I studied Psychology while working for the Philippine Ministry of Tourism”.
Fate happened she says when she met Jack, a British army officer and the pair ended up in Berlin, moving between army bases in Germany and the UK while raising two young daughters. “I didn’t really question it. I am very adaptable. Whenever it’s gloomy and wet here, people always tell me that I must miss my country but I don’t because I’m so busy. I just get on with it”.
The soup is ready quickly. The trick to a good Filipino broth is in the toppings I’m told as Melissa chops fat garlic cloves and crisps them in hot oil to Evangelina’s chides, “a bit too brown Melissa”. It’s common in the Philippines to make big batches of oily minced garlic to spruce up the week’s leftover rice, eggs or soup. “There’s always, always calamansi [a Filipino citrus fruit] but you can use lemons instead and fish sauce really makes it although I worry it’s too strong for people here”, says Evangelina who has learned to cook more what she calls ‘a la western’. A spicy tamari dip, boiled eggs, sliced chilli, spring onion tops and extra lemon wedges arrange themselves on the table.
We sit to eat, ladling soup onto noodles, squeezing in lemon juice and adding extra crispy garlic onto an already garlicky rich broth. We sit slurping our bright bowlfuls, relishing that universal nourishment of a good chicken soup: a soup, in this case, that might have travelled from the Philippines but which people all over the world have eaten in some form or other for centuries, passed from person to person, mother to daughter, friend to friend for generations. A recipe that like any good story reveals its lessons even if the details change with every making and telling of it. Lessons that in this London kitchen, at least, are still very much alive.
Evangelina’s Filipino Chicken Noodle Soup
This is a bit of a cross between two Filipino soups, Tinola and Sotanghon. You can swap in any vegetables you have in the fridge; runner beans, leeks, broccoli, red pepper, pak choi, spinach, any variety of cabbage, really anything. You can also use the chicken carcass or other bones to make this recipe so use what you can find, it will make extra stock so freeze it to make soup another day or store it in the fridge for up to three days.
Feeds 4, plus stock for the next soup
For the chicken stock
1kg chicken wings (the best quality you can afford)
a good handful of vegetable scraps, such as carrot, onion peelings, herb
stalks (avoid broccoli or leek ends)
For the soup
2 tablespoons ghee or coconut or olive oil
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 fat thumb of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery sticks (and the leaves if you have them), finely chopped
2 carrots, sliced
a good handful of spinach or a stub of cabbage, finely shredded
a few spring onions, finely sliced (save the green tops for garnish)
4 portions of vermicelli noodles
juice of ½ lemon
2 teaspoons fish sauce (if you don’t have it, add more salt or lemon)
sea salt and black pepper
For the toppings
3 tablespoons ghee or coconut or olive oil
1 bulb of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 tbsp tamari or soy sauce
juice of ½ lemon or Filipino calamansi
1 fresh red or green chilli, sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
To make the stock, melt the ghee or oil in a large saucepan, add the wings and fry for around 5 minutes or until golden, turning with tongs. Remove the browned chicken wings to another large saucepan (save the chicken fat in the pan), cover well with hot water and add the vegetable peelings.
Season, cover with a lid and leave to simmer over a medium heat for at least an hour – the longer the better. Once you’re ready to use it, you can shred the chicken, returning the bones and skin to the stock pot for another day.
Meanwhile, prepare your toppings. For the crispy garlic, heat the ghee or oil in a small frying pan, then fry the garlic – you want it to be a bit more golden than you’re used to but be careful not to burn it. In a little bowl, combine the tamari or soy and lemon juice, add lots of black pepper and some sliced chilli.
To make the soup, add the onion to the chicken fat and soften for 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic, ginger, celery and carrots and fry for another 5 minutes.
Add enough of your stock to cover and bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, adding the shredded chicken, cabbage or spinach for the final minute. Season with a squeeze of lemon juice and the fish sauce.
Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions, and divide between your bowls. Ladle over the soup and bring to the table with all the toppings. Let everyone help themselves.
TIP. If you have any leftover crispy garlic, fry your morning eggs straight in the pan for delicious results.