I'm not really sure if I understand what makes a soup truly "Chinese."
Is it just the ingredients put into it?
Or more the philosophy behind it?
Do Chinese people ever get in a hurry and just make soup on the fly out of whatever's on hand?
Or is it always a slow-simmered yin-yang affair?
Would they be adverse to a pre-made broth, as long as it was a homemade broth of the slow-simmered variety?
Or is that idea too Western to be authentic?
I've always got a few jars of slow-cooked stock in my freezer. There's some in quart jars for soup and some in pint jars for sauces. They're perfect when I have run into a challenging week. And this, my friends, has indeed been one of those weeks.
I've been moving furniture since last week. Then on Sunday, a few wonderful people came over to help me get rid of my carpet. The previous owners, you see, had cats and I'm allergic to cats. And I was allergic to the carpet those cats had left behind. But now the carpet is gone and things are much better for me and that little thing called breathing.
But, I've still got boxes and furniture stacked to the ceiling of my dining room. And my clothes are hanging in the bathroom whilst I patiently await floor refinishing and painted walls. The arrangement is OK. The stuff I have to have I can get to for now. But it's a bit like living in some sort of weird hotel with no room service. I feel like I should order a pizza and eat on the floor, not cook in the kitchen.
So when I glanced at the fridge this week and started thinking of what to make for my lunches, I was really looking for something simple. Something easy.
Soup came to mind.
There was one fish left from my free fish feast. And I had some leftover picnic ham from feeding my volunteers. That sounded like the start of good soup, to my western mind anyway. So I started reading about Chinese soups.
I didn't get very far in my reading before I felt a bit like Alice lost in Wonderland.
中国汤 or in pinyin, zhong guó táng, are deceptively simple. (Say it something like this: jong (flat tone) gwah? tahng?)
The Chinese think of soup like medicine, and there are actually restaurants where you visit the doctor first for a soup prescription. Ingredients are precisely measured and sometimes must even be cooked for a precise amount of time and consumed at certain times of the day.
So while the Chinese soups look very simple and elegant, there's more to them than meets the eye.
The books describe warming (yang) and cooling (yin) ingredients that cancel each other out to make the overall soup neutral, and thus healing. Pork is neutral, and ginger warming. Chicken, mutton and beef are all warming. But duck, frog and rabbit are all cooling.
Cabbage and cauliflower? Cooling.
Garlic? Definitely warming.
But what was fish?
The books I have didn't say! I had no clue. And Auntie Google was not much help.
And then, not only the warming, the cooling and the neutral but there are also ingredients with humidity. Corn for example. Oysters, shrimp, mangoes and coconut, too. Those are neutralized with things like potatoes, carrots, apples, milk or honey.
If these things are not balanced, the yin will be out of sorts with the yang, and nobody wants that. Especially not after they've played in sinus-wrecking dust all day!
My head was hurting by now. The art and science of Chinese soups has developed over thousands of years. No way was I going to learn such a complicated system in one afternoon. So I adjourned my consideration of the science of Chinese soups to some ma po doufu instead at a favorite Chinese Restaurant, First Wok.
Ma po is a very tasty Szechuan dish that is as easy to make as it is spicy, and I love eating it. Especially when I've got a sinus headache. Clears things right up. We will definitely visit the topic of Ma po soon, but for now I decided to just put away all the book stuff and do what I like to do best when I'm in the kitchen. Play with ingredients until I find something that tastes great.
So my apologies to the experts out there on Chinese soup. They may rightly feel that this soup is too warming or too cooling, too dry or too humid. It does have a super tasty Maylaysian style broth, but may not be an authentic Chinese soup.
I'll keep reading about Chinese soups, but in the meantime, I like to think this little venture was still in the spirit of things.
It's a pot of good health, made of things on hand, combined in a way that's very pleasing to the palate and I think healthful to the stomach. Not only that, but it was uplifting to my spirits after a difficult week. I hope it will be for yours as well.
One Fish Mostly Ham Soup
In a large soup pot put:
one quart of homemade concentrated broth
one quart water
|One essential ingredient in a Chinese soup|
is slow simmered homemade broth.
Make it on a slow Saturday,
freeze for a fast week.
leftover ginger-sherry steamed fish ~ 4 oz
leftover picnic ham diced ~8 oz
Handful dried black mushrooms
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp or so of cardamon
Bring this to a boil for about 20 minutes so the mushrooms have time to reconstitute and the spices have time to blend. To this add:
1 can baby corn
1 green pepper chopped
one-quarter red onion sliced
1 sprig basil
1 sprig basil
Continue cooking until the green peppers just begin to change but remain bright green.
Add the rice noodles and boil another minute or so until they are done. Serve in a favorite large bowl and garnish with more basil.
Have a great week everyone!