Chinese Soup

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Soup doesn't get much attention in the UK. You might reheat a canned soup when you're too full for a proper meal, or mix powdered soup with boiling water when you're camping. But that's about it.

Things are different here – soup is a big deal. MrsB summed it up: “Don't drink soup? Then you'll get sick!”

The Chinese soup she's thinking is the soup that is served in homes here - nothing like the gloopy “something with sweetcorn” soup served in Chinese restaurants overseas. No cans or powders either. I think the average local mum would rather leap out of their high-rise kitchen window than be seen serving those to their family. A mother is measured by her soup, so there's more work involved than just opening a can.

First there's the choice of the type of soup, to best fit the drinker's current health. At the broadest level, that depends on the weather, eg cooling soups in summertime, and warming soups for winter. Soups are always served at a warm temperature, the 'warming' and 'cooling' refers to the chinese medicine view of hot and cold. The soup's ingredients (all fresh, of course) may also be tailored to help a specific condition – eg skin problems, a sore throat, or the infamous 'yeet hay'.

Next, and thankfully, there is also some consideration paid to what the soupee likes and dislikes. We went through a phase of having fishy-tasting soups. Sometimes there was an actual fish involved, other times there were dried seafood. Not my cup of ... soup, so we don't get those so often now. Pork, carrots and other things I wonder about always goes down well though. In fact I saw the remains of soup-making in the kitchen earlier today, so it looks as though we'll be having the pork & something soup tonight:

Chinese Soup

Best drunk on an empty stomach, the soup is often served just before dinner. That's not a must though – if you're getting home late you might find soup waiting for you. One of the common phonecalls you can overhear on the bus will be “Let me know if you're coming home tonight, and I'll cook you soup”, or with different undertones “I'm cooking your favourite soup. Are you coming home for dinner?”. MrsB let on that cooking good soup is seen as one way for a wife to prevent her husband from straying!

With so much riding on the quality of the soup, a good recipe is something to be prized and be proud of. Keep this in mind if you're invited to a friend's home for a family meal. When you are served soup, you won't go far wrong by asking for a second bowl. Show a bit of interest in the ingredients and their beneficial effects, and the mother will be in seventh heaven. (Just be careful not to go too far, or you'll start receiving thermos flasks of the stuff on a daily basis!)

If you marry a local person, you'll discover that the arrival of a new baby is a signal to ramp up the soup production, and also to zero in on ingredients that help new mums. Expect plenty of fish soup (lucky I'll never be a mum), and probably papaya soup too if there is breast-feeding underway. You'll also be served up a dose of the pig knuckle, ginger, eggs, and vinegar concoction that is meant to fortify the new mum. You'll smell that before you taste it though, as it hubbles and bubbles away for a long time before it is ready to be served.

MrsB also drank bird's nest soup for a while after each time she gave birth. Now, like me you're probably wondering how you get soup from this [1]:

Especially when you try a mouthful of birds nest soup and find it's what you imagine drinking from a spittoon must feel like. If you turn to the web to solve the mystery, you find your instincts were almost spot on: “A few species of swift, the cave swifts, are renowned for building the saliva nests used to produce the unique texture of this soup.” [2] (A second reason to be grateful I'm a man).

Given the importance of soup, there's little surprise that restaurants here serve plenty of the stuff too. In an interesting cultural twist, a set lunch at a local restaurant that serves nominally “western” food will almost always include soup as a starter. You get a choice of red or white, and as Mr Tall explains, “ALWAYS choose the red soup”.

The most common soup you'll get with a set lunch at a local Chinese restaurant will be similar to the watery homestyle soups described above. If you're heading to a fancier Chinese restaurant, though, and especially if you're eating from the wedding/annual company dinner/fleece-the-tourist banquet menu, then expect to be served a bowl of shark's fin soup. Should you eat it or not? I think not, but at the table I'll just say I don't like it, and ask if anyone else would like my bowl. I can't see the attraction anyway, it just seems like eating noodles to me.

If you're here in winter, you might also try a bowl of snake soup [3]. If you're just visiting, don't worry that you'll order a bowlful by mistake. Snake soup is generally served in a small shop that specifically sells snake products – there are usually several cages of live snakes on display just to dispel any doubts. It is supposed to be a good 'warming' food for the wintry weather. Something interesting to try, but yes, it tastes like chicken...

MrB

References:
[1] - Photo of bird's nest from the Walk Camarthenshire website
[2] - Birds nest soup
[3] - Snake soup

Comments

soup recipe?

Mr. B, as someone who is now living back in the States after a WONDERFUL stint in Hong Kong I find myself missing greatly the culinary treasures of HK. Do you think Mrs. B would mind too much if you were to post one (or several) of her soup recipes on batgung? Appeal to her sense of mercy for us HK lovers stranded outside the region.

Many Thanks,

Sam 

soup recipe

Sam, unfortunately - and despite her comment about straying husbands - MrsB doesn't cook the soups in our house. They are courtesy of her sister-in-law. I've never seen her use a recipe book though, I guess she has a rough idea of what she'll use, then sees what looks good in the market.

I see Google offers many options for 'chinese soup recipe' - readers, can you recommend any of those sites, or any good recipe for chinese soup?

MrB

Chinese Soup

The picture is typical chinese pork/veg soup...done well it is very tasty though you need patience since the best results imply you need to cook at least for 3 hours on a simmer. Or a day in advance to let all the flavours infuse just like making stock.

I personally use a Tiger NFA-B800 8 Liter Thermal Magic Cooker (double pot cooker) which means you boil up everything and place the inner pot into the outer pot to cook slowly over the day (very good for lazy people like me) so the meat gets tender. The outer pot's vacuum stainless steel construction maintains the high temperature of the inner pot for slow cooking. (Also very useful for stews).

Give me some time for recipe measurements...i do everything by eye these days when making soup.

Vince.

Chinese soup

Thanks Vince. I asked sister-in-law, but as expected was told "Oh, there's no recipe. You just throw in what you like and it'll be fine".

From memories of certain meals (I use the term loosely) I concocted in my student days, that is far from guaranteed. So we'll look forward to your recipe!

MrB

Grrh..had to write this

Grrh..had to write this twice since forgot to post properly. Here goes my recipe. You'll notice it is very similar to making a western soup base using a "mirepoix" which is fancy way of saying chopped up veggies & not the soup/stock itself ;)

This should serve 5 persons.

500Gm Carrots(3-4 large) - Sliced
500Gm Onions (2 large) - Diced
200-300Gm Tomatoes - Diced
700Gm (Pork Loin or Pork Soup Bone(s))
- the soup bones give some extra flavour from the marrow in my opinion. You can
buy all these from butcher or prepacked in local HK supermarket.
1/4 cup Dried Peanuts [from chinese supermarket]

Optional:
- Corn Cob (1-2 Corn Cob cut into small pieces)
- 2 Celery Sticks - sliced
- If you really want HK authentic, add a couple of chicken feet as meat base. I swear the wife doesn't like it but I do. Too fatty she says !

1. Pre-soak dried peanuts in bowl of water for about half and hour. Drain.
2. Boil up some water in saucepan, and put pork in, to remove some of fat that is naturally in the pork and reduce the cooked blood that will form on the surface later. Boil 2 minutes only. Remove Pork.

3. Heat a saucepan with 2-3 tbsp of vegetable oil. Medium heat.
- During this time, boil water in the kettle.
4. Sautee the onions & carrots until the onions becomes soft
5. Add the pork & tomatoes
6. Pour the boiled water from kettle into the saucepan until it just covers the ingredients. [Should be around 1 litre/5 Cups...you like more soup add more water!!]
7. Add peanuts.
8. Allow to boil and then bring to a simmer for 1.5 - 2 hours
- if you have a double cooker. steps 3-7 are done in the inner pot. After that you move the inner pot into the outer pot and leave for 4-6hours. Or overnight.
9. Add salt to taste
10. Serve with fresh coriander (aka Cilantro)

We make the soup in the morning and by nighttime it's all ready. Usually, we leave overnnight for increased flavour & bring to the boil once more in the morning.

Optionally, you can use oxtail as the meat base. Remember it takes a long time to get the oxtail tender so be patient. Again, we usually cook that type of meat overnight.

Stay tuned for some more soups.
- Chinese Dried Mushroom/Dried Scallop
- Winter Melon

But I guess the batgung folks will also have their own soup recipes as well.
Vince

Chinese soup recipe

Thanks Vince, nice and detailed. It looks like the batgung cookbook will be next up for publication after the coffee-table book!

MrB

A book called "The Wisdom

A book called "The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen: Classic Family Recipes for Celebration and Healing" has useful recipes for a lot of Cantonese home classics, and a special section on various soups. What I like is that it has the usual western style cook book info, but the names of the dishes are also written in Chinese characters. So it is multifunctional.

It's available from Paddyfield (free delivery in HK if you buy more than $HK 150)

http://www.paddyfield.com/mainstore/searchisbn.php?PHPSESSID=f6qv14a94rstlk5jknnt9vj6b0&q=9780684847399  

In the milieu that I grew up in in the NE USA, soup was a somewhat big deal. Chicken soup (esp. w/ lots of garlic) was considered a very necessary for healing (try googling "Jewish penicillin"). I've had friends and in-laws who were Italian American and soup appears to be an important healing and nurturing method among them as well. Also, visiting relatives (esp. older women) and being loaded down w/ left-overs and produce from the garden or from a really good buy at the market seems almost as common as among Chinese. Maybe we could call these "table-oriented" cultures? In my "mixed" home family, we used to joke a bit that at a party, WASPS focus on providing good booze and Jews and Italians focus on providing good food. Stereotypes, I know...

soup and comfort

This is a lovely thread. I recall an article/discussion thread we had a while back about the differences between convenience and comfort, and thinking about soup brought me right back to it. Soup isn't the most convenient-to-prepare food, but it sure does summon up the images of comfort, doesn't it?

I grew up in a Dutch-American household and town, so my soup background is highly focused on . . . hold your breath . . . pea soup! To this day, I just love it, but I've had no success at all in convincing Mrs Tall of its manifest benefits, so I don't have it that often.

Anyway, back to Chinese soups: one question I've often had has to do with the 'etiquette of the ingredients', to coin a term. That is, when exactly is it expected that the ingredients will be served in the bowl of soup itself, when should they be dumped out onto a platter and plopped down on your table, and when should they just be thrown away?

the etiquette of soup debris

I asked MrsB...

At a restaurant, the more expensive/unusual the soup, the more likely it is the ingredients will appear on a plate after the soup has been served. It proves the ingredients are what you ordered, and gives you a chance to eat them if you want to.

She said that if the ingredients appear, it's always fair game to eat them. (I'm not sure about this. I'm sure I'd pick out the one thing that is never eaten, so I'd rather watch to see what others do before pouncing!) In particular if it was specially cooked as a nutritious soup, you'd want to eat up the ingredients so none of the nutrition was lost. She gave the examples of the soups that were cooked for her in the few weeks after childbirth - she'd have suffered a serious scolding if she'd left any of the ingredients behind.

But for run-of-the-mill soup, it's up to you if you eat or not. In the example of the pork soup in the picture bove, there's also a couple of pounds of carrots & turnips. Munching your way through those would be hard work!

MrB

PS skmama, thanks for the descriptions of soups in the different parts of your family, they're lovely.

Soup, penicillin, recipes

I am HK-born Chinese (now based in Australia), so from an early age I have been indoctrinated in the idea that a sick person should take 'mild' soups such as fish or maybe beef. My mum reckons that chicken soup is too rich and more suited to convalescents, ie once you are actually on the mend.

I am married to a guy with Jewish / Italian background, so he gets the chicken-soup-as-penicillin thing from both sides. He craves chicken broth with noodles whenever he gets sick.

It's taken me years to become brave enough to have chicken soup when I get sick! (still half-expecting to get sicker the moment I take a sip)

I love Western soups too, but to me they are forever classified as just food, when Chinese soups mean so much more - nourishing/restorative/healthful.

On the subject of Chinese soup recipes, a friend gave me this link:

http://www.foodno1.com/efoodno1/index.html

this page has Chinese, English and Filipino translations, and seems to have a good range of soup as well as other recipes.

  Not really sure how into

 

Not really sure how into food you are in Uk? but i've always felt that beautiful homemade soups are a HUGE and delicious deal in our diets. it's an outdated misconception that British food is bland and unimaginative. I'm sure HK food rock's too but if your any sort of cook at all or enjoy eating out British food defo holds it's own with any countries cuisine. 

Chinese soup starter bags

I wasn't sure what to call this. But if you are interested in making your own medicinal Cantonese soups (to each his own...), I believe that you can buy ready-made bags in Chinese pharmacies which contain the various roots/dried herbs/etc. for a pot of soup (different bags for different kinds of soups to supplement your health / warm you / cool you / prevent whatever it is you are worrying about).

Also, if you know broadly what sort of soup you want to make and can communicate at all with the vegetable ladies in the wet market, they are sometimes more than willing to put together a bag of crucial vegetables for you and give you all kinds of enthusiastic advice about the sort of meat, how long to cook, is it appropriate for the age/sex/astrological sign of the person for whom you are cooking. Pick out a middle-aged or older saleslady and chances are, you will hear more than you bargained for. 

I myself am not a fan of Cantonese soups (I do love a good pea soup, though), but my mother-in-law is always interested in exploring different food traditions and anything health-related, and so the cleaners in our building sent her off to the pharmacies and she found the vegetable ladies on her own. They can't always communicate well (my mother-in-law speaks Mandarin but not Cantonese), but if the subject is a persistent cough, or a small child refusing to eat (must be a stomach problem, that), or a daughter-in-law with headaches...they find a way. 

It's harder if you have no Chinese, but I suspect that if you had the names of soups written down, you could probably get yourself a soup bag without too much difficulty. Perhaps visit the pharmacies with a friend who reads Chinese and can point out the relevant bags and write down the names for you. This sounds a bit over the top, but I am always amazed at the lengths to which some devotees of Chinese medicine will go. So for what it's worth.