Hunting And Gathering: Shopsin's Senegalese Chicken Soup

by Lisa Barlow

ShopsinsL93 (2) One of the things I love most about living over the F train in Brooklyn is that I am never hungry for very long. All I have to do is think about lunch and in the space of 15 minutes, I might have traveled from my quiet kitchen to the cacophonous din of the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side where I will be sitting at the counter at Shopsins eating the best chicken soup of my life.

Kenny Shopsin is legendary in New York. With his big girth and wild look, he is half culinary wizard and half troll under the bridge. For years he bellicosely presided over a storefront on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village that simply said “GROCERY” over the door, but everyone referred to as Kenny’s or Shopsins.

In my twenties, eating lunch at Shopsins became something of a regular occurrence. The restaurant was originally a real grocery store, but it had morphed one day into a grocery store that served food. There were a few tables next to the shelves of canned goods, a window booth, stools along the counter and an upright piano where it wasn’t uncommon to see one of the Shopsins' 5 kids or a customer banging at the keys. Kenny was behind the counter tossing ingredients into pans and onto plates. His wife, Eve, was alternately bussing dishes and hoisting a baby onto her hip as she served a burger. There would also be a fair amount of yelling, which was fine unless it was directed at you. And if there wasn’t yelling, there was bound to be something else to shock.

One day, when my friend Meg and I decided to impress her future husband by sharing our favorite lunch spot, Eve not only bussed our table, she picked up the ketchup smeared leftover piece of Richard’s cheeseburger and popped it into her mouth. Chewing, she smiled and told us she hated waste.

Today, Shopsins has relocated to a tiny corner in the Essex Street Market, where it vies for space with a variety of stalls including a butcher, a cheesemonger, a baker of eclectic cakes and a seller of religious votives and reliquaries that is more diorama and prayer station than store. There is still a counter where solitaires can sit on one of three stools, and a bunch of small tables. A few toys lie on the counter begging to be played with. But gone are the piano, the gumball machine, the pile of circulating books and most glaringly, Eve, who died 8 years ago. Today, it is her son Zack, who I used to see on Bedford Street in diapers, who is cooking in the kitchen. And it is Zack, whose turn it is to shock on the day I am there for lunch.

“Get the fuck out!” he suddenly screams at the two European men who have managed to find Shopsins in their guidebooks. “You’re fucking Vegans! Just get out!”
“I just asked if there was butter,” stammers one of the men, looking sadly at his receding plate of eggplant enchiladas. “Just get out,” Zack insists. “We don’t cook for no fucking vegans, okay? You want something special ‘cause you think you’re special, you tell me first!” The men don’t stand a chance. They gather their coats and Zack returns to the kitchen, which is two feet away. The string of expletives continues and is added to by a bemused Kenny, who is by the stove creating the alchemy that will be my soup.

I smile at the departing would-be diners and shrug. Now they have a story to tell and they are part of a big club. Nearly every day someone gets thrown out of here for something. There are a few rules if you want to eat here and if you break them, you’re out.  Rule #1 can be tough: No one is allowed to order the same thing as anyone else. If the boy at the table next to you is eating the banana ebelskivers with his eyes rolled back in his head they are so good, you can’t have them. But with a mile long menu, there are plenty of other options. Try one of Kenny’s “Odd Poutines” instead. Or “Lunch in a Skillet”, which might include Duck Confit, Potato Latkes and Haricots Verts. But don’t act undecided. That’s Rule #2.

Senegalese Chicken soup Senegalese chicken soup is what I used to eat the most often at the old place, so it is what I order first in the new one. “How hot?” the kitchen wants to know. “7 on a scale of 10” I tell them. When it comes, it is just right with the heat emanating from  a whole chipotle pepper that is sitting in the bowl infusing the soup with its smoky warmth. Kenny has tossed in a handful of Granny Smith apple pieces, some coconut flakes, about half of a small sautéed onion, and a few pine nuts. There is at least one whole chicken breast in there. As he usually does, he has added cream to the chicken broth. The few pieces of spinach and some peas are there for color as well as taste.

The soup tastes as good to me as it always did, and I am grateful for that. Kenny likes to change things up and I was worried this recipe might fall into that category. “My restaurant is never done. It is constantly changing” he writes in Eat Me, the Food and Philospphy of Kenny Shopsin, the book he recently published. “My regular customers know that if they order the same thing they got last week, there is a good chance I will make it so differently that they don’t even recognize it…It’s like sex: you approach it each time to do the best you possibly can, as if it were the only time…and every time it turns out just a little bit different.”

Here is a recipe for Kenny Shopsin’s Senegalese soup. It is altered a little from the published version to include the ingredients he threw into my bowl.

Senegalese Chicken Soup

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts,
cut into one-inch cubes

Flour for dredging
1 tsp grated coconut
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped cooked potato
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and chopped
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp pine nuts
3 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup frozen peas
1 chipotle pepper
A few leaves of fresh spinach

Dredge the chicken in the flour.
Heat the butter in a large sauté pan over high heat.
Sauté chicken pieces and coconut until brown.
Add onion, potato and apple. Sauté until soft.
Stir in garam masala, curry powder, cinnamon and pine nuts.
Deglaze the pan with the stock.
Add cream, peas, spinach and chipotle pepper. Simmer for 2-3 minutes until soup is warm and chicken is cooked through.

LB2 Lisa Barlow is a writer and photographer who divides her time between New York, Telluride and  San Pancho, Mexico. An enthusiastic omnivore, she specializes in stories about food.

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