Contrary to the practice in Chinese restaurants here, tea is never served during a meal in China. With the exception of Dim Sum, where it is thought to aid in digesting the rich dumplings, tea is a beverage to be enjoyed after a meal. Drinking water during a meal is also not a Chinese custom, as water is thought to dilute the nutrients, solidify the fat and clog the arteries. During a celebratory banquet, sodas and alcoholic beverages are consumed at staggering rates. But the beverage of choice for the everyday meal in China, is soup.
Aside from assisting in washing down the solid food being consumed, soup provides its own nutrients. The type of soup consumed during the meal can be as simple as the boiled water in which the dumplings were cooked, with some ginger, scallions and sesame oil added for flavor, although most everyday soups are based on a clear, thin stock made from chicken and pork bones.
Although many soups are popular year-round, most soups found on the Chinese home table vary according to the season. Spring, aside from being a time of growth, is also a time dominated by wind, rain and changeable weather. To combat colds and Spring allergies, and to nourish the liver, the Chinese opt for green leafy vegetables such as watercress.
Here are two simple soups to help you stay healthy during the spring season. Both soups were taught to me by Wang Jian Hua, the mother of the family with whom I lived in Taiwan many years ago.
Pork, Mustard Pickle and Watercress Soup
6 cups chicken broth
One chunk of ginger, about 2”, sliced into thin slices, then julienned into thin strips
6 thin slices of Sichuan mustard pickle, rinsed, sliced and julienned into thin strips
1/8 tsp. white pepper
2 Tbls. Shaoxing rice wine, or dry sherry
1 bunch watercress, tough stems removed
1/4 lb. boneless pork loin, sliced into 1/2” pieces and then julienned
salt to taste
2 tsps. Sesame oil
Place the stock, ginger, and mustard pickle in a heavy pot, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered about five minutes. Add the white pepper, the Shaoxing rice wine or sherry, and the watercress, and cook another five minutes. Add the pork and cook one minute until the pork is no longer pink. Taste for seasoning, adding salt to taste. Pour into four individual soup bowls, drizzle with sesame oil, and serve.
Tofu Soup with Chinese Black Beans
This classic combination of ginger, spring onions and fermented black beans is thought to help prevent the common cold. This recipe serves 4.
1 TBLS. peanut oil
8 scallions, white part cut into 1” pieces and green part finely sliced into rounds.
1 pkg. firm tofu, cut into small cubes
Several slices of peeled fresh ginger
3 Tbls. Chinese fermented black beans, rinsed, and coarsely chopped.
1 Tbls. light soy sauce
6 cups chicken broth
Toasted sesame oil
Heat a wok over high heat. When hot, swirl in the peanut oil. Add the white part of the scallions, and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the Tofu and heat until the tofu begins to brown. Carefully turn over the tofu to brown on the other side, adding a bit more oil if necessary.
Add the ginger, black beans, soy sauce and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat and cook for 20 minutes. Pour into four individual soup bowls, garnish with the slivered green scallions, and cilantro sprigs, and drizzle a little sesame oil on top.
written by Jim Becker, Chinatown Guide