When the weather cools, I think about soup. Not the tomato-based soups I tend to make, the ones I have with oyster crackers or crusty French bread. Rather, I think about the Asian broths my mother makes, the ones that simmer on the back burner in her Chinatown kitchen.
She starts a pot from scratch, building flavors with each step, each new ingredient, adjusting seasonings along the way. One day, it’s a pot of watercress soup. On another, seaweed. Some days, pressed for time, my mother works with handfuls of ground pork, slivers of tofu, and cans of store-bought broth. She improvises.
In Classic Chinese Cuisine, Nina Simonds describes the prominent place soup has on dinner tables in traditional Asian households.
“Whereas soups seem to play a rather restricted role in Western cuisine, in China they have a much broader calling,” she tells us. “In a family-style meal, soup is served along with the other dishes to provide nourishment and to function as a beverage.”
According to cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop, in Guangdong and other parts of southern China, soup is usually eaten at the beginning of the meal and helps to whet the appetite.
Growing up in Oakland, California, my sisters, brothers, and I were always instructed to finish our bowls of soup first. Only then could we proceed with the rest of dinner. Like classmates who had to eat their vegetables if they wanted dessert, we needed to empty our soup bowls if we wanted rice.
But in Chengdu and other parts of southwest China, Dunlop explains in Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking, soup is generally “served at the end of the meal, and its function is to cleanse the palate after the intense, heavy flavors of a typical Sichuanese meal.”
Soup, Simonds says, aids digestion and improves circulation. “Some soups have been used for centuries to treat certain ailments . . . Stocks simmered with assorted Chinese herbs were administered for a number of maladies.”
Even now, she notes, new mothers often have a “chicken soup flavored with ginger in southern China and sesame oil in Taiwan” every day for a month after childbirth in order to restore balance and energy in their bodies.
Teresa M. Chen further examines the benefits of broth in A Tradition of Soup: Flavors from China’s Pearl River Delta. “The Chinese soup tradition started back in the old country, where people knew many lean times,” she writes in the introduction. “With humble ingredients, the Cantonese prepared a flavorful soup stock, to which practically anything on hand could be added.”
Stock ingredients might include pork neck bones, for example, or chicken rib bones. For vegetarian soups, bases can be made with soybean sprouts, white turnips, or Napa cabbage. These items are naturally sweet.
Frugal — and smart — cooks know instinctively that seemingly ordinary things can be useful, too. “Leftovers such as the carcass of a roast duck or a roast turkey, trimmings from a lobster or shrimp shells can all be turned into soup stock,” Chen continues.
“Wealthy households and restaurants expanded the possibilities by using a whole chicken, a whole fish, or a whole hunk of pork to make stock. After cooking for hours on end, with medicinal herbs and complementary ingredients, the broth would be strained and served hot.”
Chen talks also about technique and kitchen equipment, and offers a comprehensive guide to both fresh and dried soup ingredients, including seafood and seaweed, oxtails and watercress, and a variety of Chinese herbs. She makes these accessible.
She interviews senior citizens at a community center in California’s Central Valley — women and men who, like my mother, understand and appreciate the nutritional value soups afford. She collects and highlights their time-tested recipes.
Not long ago in Las Vegas, nursing a head cold and a seriously sore throat, I looked to hot-and-sour soup for comfort. Miles away from my mother’s extensive home cooking, I relied on a restaurant at the hotel where friends and I were staying.
Like sweet-and-sour pork, for example, or stir-fried beef and broccoli, hot-and-sour soup has been on menus in Chinese restaurants across the country for decades. Unlike other Asian broths, though, it is relatively heavy, thickened with cornstarch. It contains slivers of meat, shiitake mushroom, and tofu.
The soup, Chen explains, was brought to Hong Kong in the 1950s by the Sichuanese and by those “who had been in Sichuan during the eight-year Sino-Japanese War, which ended with the end of World War II.” It was subsequently brought to the U.S. by people passing through Hong Kong in the 1960s, and shortly thereafter captured the American palate.
At the restaurant table, when my friends selected noodle dishes and rice plates for lunch, I asked for hot-and-sour soup. I ate one bowl, and another bowl, and another, slowly and deliberately. Potent, it worked wonders. The ginger acted as a recuperative tonic, while the white pepper and vinegar delivered a heat and intensity my body seemed to need.
Slowly, my body relaxed and recovered. The soup set me straight.
Christina Eng is a writer in Oakland, California, and a frequent contributor to Culinate.