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A paleo-friendly chicken soup owes its velvety texture to a Cantonese cooking technique

(Photos by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Marie Ostrosky for The Washington Post)

Michelle Tam has a little secret. She’s not necessarily writing her cookbooks and blog just for paleo-conscious home cooks.

“The design for all of our cookbooks is to secretly appeal to kids,” said Tam, who just published her third cookbook, “Nom Nom Paleo. Let’s Go!” “That is why we do the step-by-step photos, the cartoons and the dad jokes. We want kids to be excited to cook their own meals and to be interested in cooking their own foods.”

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For example, her recipe for Chicken Velvet and Spinach Soup features 14 accompanying photos, shot by Tam’s husband, Henry Fong, that take you by the hand and walk you through the process of making this soothing, gingery dish. In the corner of the page is a cartoon of a little girl holding a soup bowl to her mouth — Slurp! — drinking down every last drop.

“It’s something my husband and I throw our blood, sweat and tears into, because we really do it all ourselves,” said the mother of two teenagers.

“People think I love to cook, but I don’t. I love to eat, but I’m also a picky eater,” said Tam, whose popular Nom Nom blog, which started in 2010, already had spawned two best-selling cookbooks that feature Paleo-friendly recipes. Tam takes issue with those who describe the cooking style as eating like our ancestors did during the Paleolithic period. She interprets it to mean “enjoying wholesome, nourishing foods and avoiding those that trigger inflammation, cause digestive problems and derail our natural metabolic processes.”

Tam credits her success partially to timing. Her first cookbook came out in 2013 when paleo eating was “super hot.” Back then, she and her family went totally paleo, scrubbing their home of grains, dairy, beans and sugar.

Today, Tam eats a 100 percent gluten-free diet and frequently eats paleo, but she eats non-paleo foods as well, she said, noting that she toyed with the idea of calling this latest cookbook “Paleo-ish” to reflect her more relaxed approach. (An example: She wrote "I love me some beans,” in the introduction to her cookbook.)

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Her latest book continues to feature paleo-friendly recipes, but also lists how each recipe suits other eating plans and the various food allergies and sensitivities people might have. For example, this chicken soup is suitable for Whole30 as well as being Keto-friendly, nut-free and nightshade-free. (Even if you are not following any sort of restrictive diet, the cookbook is appealing for its flexible, clearly written and varied recipes.)

With the vast array of food sensitivities in mind, she developed a vegan No-Fish Sauce, her interpretation of an Asian fish sauce, which is made by simmering shiitake mushrooms, dulse seaweed and coconut aminos. But, she said, if you can eat fish sauce, use it in this soup for its big flavor boost. Also, because she is following the paleo path, she uses arrowroot in her ground chicken, but notes cornstarch works just as well.

Makes this recipe: No Fish Sauce

The “Let’s Go” cookbook, her first in four years, grew out of being stuck at home during the pandemic, said Tam, who was a hospital pharmacist before devoting herself to full-time recipe developing and writing in 2014.

“This cookbook is really just a love letter to the food I grew up with and the foods I missed because we were stuck in the pandemic,” she said, noting that there are many Cantonese-style recipes, but also ones that reflect other immigrant cultures in the San Francisco Bay area.

Tam, who grew up in the area and now lives in Palo Alto, was longing for this chicken soup, so she made it for her family.

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“Whenever we would go to a Cantonese banquet dinner with my family, it always starts with this beautiful soup in the beginning,” she said. “The meat is finely minced and mixed with egg whites, ice water and some kind of starch, so it becomes fluffy and velvety. The texture and that soup really takes me back to my childhood.”

Her mother would use a giant clever to finely chop the chicken, but Tam said that for this recipe, “you gotta break out the food processor.”

She borrows from the velveting technique used in Cantonese cooking: Meats are coated and marinated in cornstarch, egg whites, rice wine, salt and water to tenderize. Here, when the finely minced chicken mixture is spooned into the hot broth and broken into pieces, it becomes tender, almost like fluffy little meat clouds.

“You can use store-bought ground chicken and it will still be delicious, but it won’t give you the same kind of velvet effect,” she said.

“Unlike my mom, who cooks 10 courses plus this soup, this is my dinner,” she said.

When I spoke with Tam in late January, she was on a book tour and was excited to be returning home in time for the Lunar New Year, especially so she could be “spoiled by my mom, who lives near us.”

Here’s to hoping that, in 2022, we’ll all be able to enjoy traditional celebrations together with family and friends. Happy new year!

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Tam says she learned this minced-chicken technique from an old Ken Hom cookbook. “The dish always hits the spot when the weather turns cold or I get wistful for Cantonese soups,” she writes.

Tam’s cookbook is for those following a paleo diet, so it calls for arrowroot, coconut aminos and her own No-Fish Sauce (find the recipe here), but cornstarch, soy sauce and regular fish sauce may be substituted.

Storage: Refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Where to Buy: Fish sauce and coconut aminos can be found in well-stocked supermarkets, Asian markets or online.

Get the recipe: Chicken Velvet and Spinach Soup