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On Cantonese soup-making
Broadly speaking, the attitudes of the West and the Cantonese towards soup-making are sharply contrasting. The Cantonese tend to prefer a cleaner taste to meat broths, while soups in the West tend to have strong, aromatic, and savoury flavours. Think about French onion soup, which hinges on caramelization, a layering of herbs, and a rich beef broth. You top the finished dish with a crunchy crouton and melted cheese. On the other hand, Cantonese cuisine rests on the tenets of freshness, natural sweetness, and clarity - all it asks is for the ingredients to speak for themselves.
“We Cantonese always say that in our cooking, there should be qing (clean and unmuddled), teem (natural sweetness), and xin (fresh or some say umami). If you can cook something without any condiments and it tastes superb, this is something we really like, because it presents these three requirements very prominently. If you are cooking chicken – chicken that you raise yourself – then the best way to cook it is just to steam it with salt. That is all! When you cook it properly, with correct timing and fire control, this will be the best chicken you have ever eaten. That is why old Chinese cookbooks say that 40% of the success of cooking lies with the person who buys the ingredients, and 60% lies with the person who cooks it.” – Sam Wong, Lucky House Cantonese Private Kitchen on the podcast
Here’s a quick overview of some techniques used in Cantonese soup-making:
Bones or meat are lowered into rapidly boiling water for a few minutes before being removed, the murky water discarded. During the blanching process, proteins from the meat surface coagulate to form scum, and excess fat renders into the boiling water. By draining the pot and rinsing the blanched meat well, the unwanted scum and fat are removed before the meat is cooked in fresh water. This removes any unpleasant odours or gaminess. Since moving to Australia, I’ve been doing this quite regularly - in soups, stews, braises - as I find it quite common for the pork here to have a strong odour. The resulting broth would also be clearer in appearance and cleaner-tasting, as opposed to cloudy and greasy.
Though more common in the Western world, sometimes ingredients are lightly fried in oil prior to using in Cantonese soups. Fish bones, for example, are typically sauteed lightly in oil with ginger and spring onion in advance to remove any fishy odours.
Double-boiling is the technique of placing ingredients and water inside a ceramic dish with a tight lid, and steaming it in a bigger pot for a few hours. This is practised when using delicate ingredients, such as shark’s fin melon, that may break apart or disintegrate when directly boiled in water. As the water to ingredient ratio within the ceramic dish is low, and no liquid evaporates from the pot, this technique allows for a full expression of the ingredients used, and retains their essence.
4. Use of dried ingredients
My mom used to have her whole fridge jam-packed with dried goodies and herbs from the medicinal hall. Dried scallops and dried cuttlefish were the ones that I keep now in my own kitchen now because they are fairly common and easy to find. But she also had delicious fa gao - some of you might think this is Chinese for huat kueh, but in Cantonese, it actually refers to dried fish maw. There was also dried mountain yam (wai san) - in Wet Market to Table, I write about the fresh mountain yam available in our markets which is popular in Japanese cuisine.
These ingredients lend the soup so much complexity - if you use these, you should simmer your soup for a few hours to fully release all the flavours within the dried goods. Though spent, they have such good textures at the end of the cooking process that I found them the best parts. I would dip the fatty collagen-rich fa gao and the tender mountain yam in soy sauce and have it with rice.
While light broths are usually what come to mind when thinking about Chinese soups, there are some that are thickened with cornstarch to create a more satisfying mouthfeel. These include fish maw soup and hot & sour soup. Sometimes a beaten egg is added to the thickened soup for visual appeal - the egg forming delicate strands that ‘bloom’ in the soup. For that reason the Chinese term the egg drop soup ‘egg flower soup’ (蛋花汤).
This is such a classic soup, one that most of us grew up eating and it tends to be also one of the first things we learn to cook. Given that we’re in winter, I’ve been cooking more soups to keep us warm. I don’t have my mother’s patience to simmer soups for the entire day, so this works well.
My recipe deviates from the usual in a few ways:
1) I don’t use onions. I just find the strong allium flavour odd in Chinese soup.
2) My mom taught me to fry the chicken lightly in its own fat until it is a light golden brown. This lends a richer and more savoury flavour to the soup.
3) I add fresh tomatoes. Might be psychological, but I feel so much healthier when I consume tomatoes in winter - all that rich vitamin-y goodness. I simmer it until it completely disintegrates, adding umami and a reddish tint to the soup.
4) I boil it for under an hour. This might simmer like a cardinal sin because Cantonese soups are mostly about long and slow cooking. But my mom tells me that there’s a ‘boiled soup’ category - and given that I don’t plan soup-making, this works well for me. The frying of the chicken and addition of tomatoes really make this soup taste good even without the long extraction of flavour. And a bonus: the chicken still tastes lovely at the end of the cooking because it’s not cooked to death.
900g chopped chicken (any part will do but I like using the carcass and wings)
200g carrot, cut into coins
400g corn, cut into thirds
Water to cover
Salt to taste
300g peeled potatoes, cut into chunks
200g tomatoes (reddest and ripest you can find), cut into wedges
In a large pot that preferably accommodates the chicken in a single layer, add the chicken and set over high heat. Cook until the chicken starts to fry in its own fat and turns a light golden brown. Add carrot, corn, and roughly enough water to cover (don’t add too much water). Bring to a boil and add salt to taste. Continue to cook on medium-high heat for at least 15 minutes, covered. While the soup cooks, I’d prepare other dishes for the meal and cook rice. Add the potatoes and tomatoes and cook until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart and the tomatoes have completely disintegrated into the soup, about 15 minutes.
Chicken and Glutinous Rice Wine Soup
25g dried black fungus, soaked in hot water until rehydrated
1 ½ + ½ tbsp flour
1 ½ + ½ + ½ tbsp salt
2 tbsp sesame oil
150g skin-on ginger, smashed with the back of a knife or pounded roughly
250g good-quality glutinous rice wine (you can also use brandy or cognac like Martell)
*Note: Both red and yellow glutinous rice wine would work for this recipe. Glutinous rice wine is sweet, so if using brandy or cognac, you might want to add a little sugar.
Chop the chicken into pieces - some people like leaving the chicken in large pieces (e.g. whole drumstick, whole thigh), but I like to cut mine into chunks). Toss well with 1 ½ tbsp flour and 1 ½ tbsp salt. Rinse with water and drain to rid it of blood and impurities. Place in a colander and set aside.
Rub the rehydrated black fungus with ½ tbsp flour and ½ tbsp salt. Rinse with water, drain, and set aside.
Transfer the chicken to a large pot that can accommodate it in a single layer. Set on high heat and cook until opaque and light golden. Add ½ tbsp salt and continue frying for a minute or so to allow the chicken to absorb the salt. Transfer the chicken and all the juices to a large bowl and set aside. In the same pot, without cleaning, add the sesame oil and ginger. Set on high heat and fry until the ginger is lightly golden.
Return the chicken and the juices to the pot. Add the black fungus and enough water to barely cover, roughly 1.2L. Bring to a boil. Cover and boil for 5-10 minutes or until the chicken is just cooked.
Add the glutinous rice wine and once the soup comes to a boil, turn off the heat. Adjust seasoning with more salt (and sugar if using brandy/ cognac) if desired, and serve immediately.