By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
In the history of the Western world, many credit the French and Germans for inventing soup a few centuries ago, whereas the Chinese have made soup for thousands of years.
The role of soups is significant. Some consume soup in place of lunch or dinner for personal, as well as health reasons. French playwright Molière said, “I live on soups, not on words.” Soups could be Molière’s source of inspiration for creativity. It’s mine, too. Quite a few writers, including journalists, are notorious for using chain-smoking or drinking wine as their creative counterpart.
According to Chinese culture, soups are therapeutic — it can heal dry skin, stress, sore foot, fatigue, and even insomnia. I wasn’t the one to think of writing about soups for this blog. A reader requested recipes for her parents after reading my blog about Tai Tung’s mom, a centenarian, who drank Chinese stewed soup for a long time. I love Chinese soup, not only because they taste fantastic, but because they are comfort foods, too. I guess I am a ”soupie,“ as I have soup every night for dinner at home. I have to confess that I don’t have the leisure to make them every day. So I have some Campbell soup cans in my pantry for emergencies. I have to go outside Chinatown/International District to get the low sodium kind.
It is time-consuming to boil Chinese soups. If you have a slow cooker at home, you can dump all the ingredients in the morning, and eat your soup when you get home.
I’d rather pay someone to do it. One of my staff members is kind enough to cook soup in a big pot, so she can share it with my family at least once a week. This blog is based on my childhood meals, and the soup prepared for me by my staff member and others. To write this piece, I stole tips from Chinese websites and books.
What is Chinese soup?
The difference between French and traditional Chinese soups is that Asian-style soup is generally clear, and never, thick, cheesy, and creamy, which gives you lots of calories and fats. Chinese like to prepare soups with lots of ingredients. However, milk and butter are never one of them. Asian soups always include a balance of meat or seafood and veggies. It also takes at least an hour of boiling in low heat until all the ingredients meld.
Literally, stewed Chinese soup is translated as “old fire soup.” Most Seattle Chinese restaurants don’t serve old fire soup any more, as it is not economical. The soup, which many local Chinese restaurants offer, is mostly hot and sour soup, bone broths of different meat, vegetable soup, egg flower soup, among others. If you want better soup, you just have to order in advance, and pay a little extra. But it‘s worth it. Just tell the restaurants, “No MSG,” and that you want the real thing.
The balance of yin and yang
Chinese soup functions are incredible. If your foot is weak, bone broth can strengthen your foot. The imbalance of yin and yang energy in your body can make you feel stressed or weak. If you are tired all the time, chicken and American ginseng (grown in Wisconsin) soup or ginseng with spareribs soup can correct the yin and yang in your body. Yes, it will enhance your energy. If you feel cold all the time, you have too much yin in your body. If so, try chicken and black pepper soup to boost your yang, as your body will heat up. If you are stressed (too much yang), drink bok choy soup boiled with fish, pork, or chicken to cool your body.
If you have dry skin, prepare the soup with winter melon, dry scallops, and duck meat or coconut meat with lychee and squab. If it‘s too much trouble to buy duck or squab meat, boil the soup with chestnuts, walnuts, and spareribs, as it will smooth your skin. Or cook a soup with lotus seeds, green peas, and chicken soup. If you have acne, drink soup with cloud ear fungus (auricularia), red dates, and fish tail. Cloud ear fungus are commonly used in Chinese cooking. You can buy them in Asian grocery stores. Another soup that’s good for your skin is boiling four little chrysanthemum buds (which will blossom into huge flowers once in water), a bottle of soy milk, and two teaspoons of honey together. What soup is good for your hair?
Make soup with seaweed and spareribs. Barley, tofu, and papaya soup will be a wonderful soup for losing weight. For better sleep quality, make a soup with dried longan fruit, and chicken, or pork. Don’t expect miracles right away if you have chronic insomnia. You can do a quick fix by boiling the longan fruit with two bowls of water for half an hour and then drink it with honey with your dinner. Over time, you will feel the difference.
To improve your eyesight, prepare soup with goji berries and fish or chicken.
Chicken and pork
If you are a vegetarian, traditional Chinese soup is probably not for you. Chicken and pork are ingredients that are frequently used.
Chicken, as I wrote before, is the king among all meats for Chinese. It’s especially ideal for weak souls who need vital nourishment after giving birth or having surgery.
Last week, my husband was in the hospital for one night. He lost his appetite due to appendix pain. But he also needed food to replenish his body.
My staff member Rebecca, a foodie, said, “Pure chicken soup.” But she taught me to do it differently. Chinese usually make soup with the whole chicken. That’s labor-intensive, as I have to skin it to get rid of the fat.
Rebecca suggested the soup should have both chicken bones and meat together. “Go to Uwajimaya and get breast frame (rib bones) and breast meat.” I was delighted when the breast frame came without the skin. So I put two pieces of breast meat and one breast frame in a boiling pot (containing seven bowls of water) for an hour on low medium heat. Also, put two to three slices of ginger in the water before it boils, to get rid of its fishy taste. Stewing the whole chicken is recommended in our culture.
But I prefer boiling and not stewing, as the soup may be too rich, resulting in too much yang energy in the body. Also, wash and rinse inside the breast ribs with salt to clean out the internal organs before you boil. The soup was clear and yummy.
You can just use bones. It‘s cheaper than pure meat. But it doesn’t taste as good as the soup with both meat and bones. Choose either chicken, pork, beef, or fish bones as one of your main ingredients. Chicken bones are the best. Pork bones are my second choice. I use beef bones less frequently because it makes the soup too greasy and has too much yang energy for me. Some might prefer beef. What you do is to freeze it after the soup is boiled, then peel the top layer of the grease before you drink it.
Fish bones are ideal for vegetarians. Fish bones take less time to cook. Be careful, you might swallow the bones in the soup. It might be a good idea to put the fish in a net while cooking. Yes, you can combine fish and chicken bones together, mix pork and chicken bones, or even fish and pork bones, but never with beef bones.
After you pick your meat or bones, you dump them with different kinds of veggies, such as carrots, water chestnuts, raw peanuts, and dried bok choy (you can get it in Chinatown grocery stores). If you put carrots, celery, tomatoes, and beef, it’s similar to making Russian soup.
What else do you add in the soup? Two slices of ginger to remove the fishy taste or enhance all the ingredients’ favor and chemistry, even though you don’t have fish bones in the soup.
Watercress with bones and goji berry soup is another great one. This soup will improve your eyesight.
A soup with fish bones, lotus seeds, and papaya is good for insomnia. If you use seafood, it is best to buy the dried ones from Asian grocery stores. They have dried abalone, dried shrimp, and dried scallops. Combining these dried seafoods will enhance the soup‘s flavor.
How to prepare
You don’t have to be a specialist to make Chinese soups. No techniques nor special sauces are needed. Just salt for some of them if you have sweet ingredients, such as carrots. You just dump meat and bones in the pot (after they are washed) when the water is hot. Boil for half an hour, then add the veggies. A pound of chicken or pork will go well with one bunch of watercress or four bok choy stalks. With the chicken, you can make a tasty soup with two carrots, 3/4 pound of Napa cabbage, one potato, and two tomatoes, depending on what I can get from the supermarket and what‘s in my fridge. It’s just an estimate. Always remember to put in your two pieces of ginger.
I never follow any recipes when I cook. I hate recipes. Experimenting is the best.
The amount of water I put in varies. Normally, I make enough to last for two to three meals. I drink at least one or two bowls of soup at every meal, so I can tackle challenges in my day.
My mother used to say, “People who don’t like soups lose out on a lot of health benefits.” It’s advice that I cherish. I also notice that people who love soups are less likely to feel stressed. Now, that’s crucial to many lines of work.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.