Your guide to Chi­nese soups and Can­tonese broths.

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All you need to know about mag­i­cal, ther­a­peu­tic Chi­nese soup, plus eight soul-restor­ing soup recipes

Ev­ery cul­ture has soup or a soup-like dish, pre­pared by boil­ing in­gre­di­ents in wa­ter. Sim­mer­ing meat, bones and plants ex­tracts vi­ta­mins, min­er­als, pro­tein and flavour, which are sus­pended in the liq­uid to cre­ate a nu­tri­tious, eas­ily di­gested drink. Broth is the ba­sis of any so­phis­ti­cated cui­sine. Ev­ery fine-din­ing kitchen, par­tic­u­larly those in high-end French or Chi­nese restau­rants, will have pots of lus­cious stock on the stove­top.

Chi­nese soups fall into two broad cat­e­gories: clear broths called tang (mean­ing “hot liq­uid”) and thicker potages known as geng. The lat­ter evolved from an an­cient mut­ton stew (the char­ac­ter con­tains the word lamb) that bub­bled away per­pet­u­ally in gi­ant bronze caul­drons, keep­ing whole clans warm dur­ing the arid win­ters of China’s Cen­tral Plains. Dur­ing the long sim­mer, sheep’s trot­ters, tail fat, con­nec­tive tis­sue and bones break down, trans­fer­ring their col­la­gen and elas­tic­ity into gelatin, lit­er­ally giv­ing body to the broth.

Geng (potage)

The pre­ferred soup at for­mal ban­quets, usu­ally in­tro­duced as “chow­der” on Hong Kong menus, vis­cous geng nowa­days is ba­si­cally a tang (liq­uid broth) thick­ened with corn­starch at the end. This gives a rich, tongue­coat­ing mouth­feel. It’s a fancy soup with mul­ti­ple com­po­nents, in­clud­ing juli­enned or hand-shred­ded bam­boo shoots, mush­rooms, tofu, fish, snake, or con­tro­ver­sially, shark’s fin.

Shang tang (su­pe­rior stock)

As in French cui­sine, the start­ing broth has a pro­found im­pact on the fin­ished dish. The ba­sis of a good geng is the mas­ter stock, which is not nec­es­sar­ily made from the ed­i­ble fix­ings of the soup. Shang tang (listed as “su­pe­rior stock or soup” on most menus) is re­fined broth, which is the essence of ban­quet­wor­thy geng, as well as count­less stews and sauces. De­pend­ing on the chef and bud­get, shang tang (se­ung tong in Can­tonese) is made with a com­bi­na­tion of scal­lions, ginger, chicken, pork, their bones and, some­times, duck and cured Jin­hua ham.

The pro­sciutto di Parma of China, this brand-name ham has been trans­ported all over the coun­try since the 10th cen­tury solely for flavour­ing soups and other dishes with its mus­cu­lar, salty umami. Dried scal­lops add a briny, savoury el­e­ment while shi­itake mush­rooms bring an earthy meati­ness to the mix. Tang (broth)

Reign­ing supreme in north­ern China are broths based on beef or mut­ton, like the orig­i­nal geng. The clas­sic Chi­nese aro­mat­ics, ginger, scal­lions and leeks, tem­per the meat’s tal­lowy taint. Bay leaves, star anise, cas­sia, fen­nel and black car­damom may fur­ther en­hance the stock. This ro­bust soup may have been the dis­tant an­ces­tor of Viet­nam’s famed beef pho broth, far to the south. The Viet­namese word canh (from Chi­nese geng) is still the usual word for soup – even wa­tery ones.

Chef Peter Cuong Franklin – who is shock­ing Viet­nam and the rest of the world with the US$100 pho at his Ho Chi Minh City restau­rant, Anan — be­lieves only two cul­tures on this planet have that level of so­phis­ti­ca­tion when it comes to soup mak­ing. “Soup is very ele­men­tal, and in French and Can­tonese cook­ing, it’s the ba­sis of the cui­sine,” says the Viet­namese chef, who trained in clas­si­cal French tech­nique at a Miche­lin­starred restau­rant. The amped-up beef broth for his ex­or­bi­tant pho goes through a clar­i­fi­ca­tion process with an egg-white raft and is strained twice, like a tra­di­tional con­sommé. “The French take two days to clar­ify soup. The Can­tonese just put all the in­gre­di­ents in a ce­ramic con­tainer, put it in a steamer, and let it sit for six to eight hours un­der slow fire; dou­ble-boil­ing pro­duces the same re­sult,” ex­plains Franklin. “What­ever ef­fort the Can­tonese put in, they want max­i­mum value out­put.”

Can­tonese dun tong (dou­ble-boiled soup)

In­di­rect steam­ing (dou­ble-boil­ing) or gen­tle cook­ing in a bain-marie is the Can­tonese method of mak­ing a re­fined broth, served at restau­rants or pre­pared at home for spe­cial oc­ca­sions. Dun tong (Can­tonese for “dou­ble-boiled soup”) is all about dis­ci­pline – no stir­ring, no touch­ing; just let time do its work. Clar­i­fi­ca­tion with an acid or egg white is un­nec­es­sary. The ef­fect is like a sous-vide soup, with all the flavours of the in­gre­di­ents con­cen­trated into one bowl.

Chef Le­ung Yu-king of Is­land Shangri-la’s Sum­mer Palace serves a so­phis­ti­cated dun tong full of sub­tle flavours. Qual­ity plump dried scal­lops are soaked overnight, steamed for two hours then frozen for two hours to main­tain the

struc­tural in­tegrity of the scal­lops. Le­ung stuffs the pre­pared scal­lops in­side a ring of mar­row then dou­ble-boils it for two hours, adding only mat­su­take mush­rooms for flavour and goji berries for their nu­tri­tional value and abil­ity to give the broth a golden colour. The re­sult is con­cen­trated con­sommé with the scal­lops’ briny sweet­ness and the al­most spiced, woodsy umami of the mush­rooms.

Can­tonese lou fo tong (slow-cooked soup)

Home­made Can­tonese soups are easy to pre­pare, although they still re­quire slow cook­ing. In­stead of dou­ble-boil­ing they are gen­tly sim­mered for two to three hours. The ba­sis of lou fo tong is blanched lean pork and aro­mat­ics, usu­ally ginger and aged tan­ger­ine peel (Xin­hui in Guang­dong has pro­duced the finest since an­tiq­uity). After that, the per­mu­ta­tions are end­less. Sum­mer might bring ribs with sun-dried bok choy, or cool­ing lo­tus root with mung bean. It could be as cheap and cheer­ful as chuck­ing in chicken feet (for col­la­gen) and peanuts (for pro­tein), or it could be a com­plex her­bal con­coc­tion of dried huais­han (Asian yam), sweet earthy yuzhu (Solomon’s seal root) and ju­jubes (Chi­nese dates). Dried seafood, such as scal­lops and conch, may be added for some oceanic umami, and dried figs, lon­gans, arhat fruit and lo­quat func­tion as nat­u­ral sweet­en­ers. Food and medicine are in­ti­mately in­ter­twined in Chi­nese culi­nary cul­ture and flavour­ful cu­ra­tive herbs such as dang­gui (an­gel­ica root) and gin­seng of­ten dou­ble as sea­son­ings, es­pe­cially in south­east China.

“His­tor­i­cally, the lush Pearl River Delta pro­duced a plethora of in­gre­di­ents the Can­tonese got to play with,” ex­plains food and cul­tural critic and restau­ra­teur Lau Kin-wai. “There are end­less com­bi­na­tions to Can­tonese soups. Ev­ery vil­lage would have a unique cre­ation. A few months back, I went to my an­ces­tral vil­lage in Zhong­shan and I had pork broth with green ba­nanas for the first time in my life.” Lau’s favourite broth right now is ch­est­nut and dried oys­ter soup, served at Kin’s Kitchen.

“I be­lieve that dim sum and lou fo tong are the epit­ome of Can­tonese cui­sine. Western­ers ap­pre­ci­ate dim sum, but they don’t seem to get Can­tonese soups at all,” Lau laments. “Maybe it’s the cul­tural as­pect of it. There’s a strong emo­tional as­so­ci­a­tion to leng tong (beau­ti­ful soup) in Can­tonese cul­ture. It’s the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the pa­tience and love of a mother or a grand­mother who cooks a daily soup for you.”

East­ern Chi­nese soups

In Jiang­nan, east­ern China, both geng and tang make reg­u­lar ap­pear­ances on din­ing ta­bles. In Hangzhou, the cap­i­tal of Zhe­jiang prov­ince and the for­mer cap­i­tal of the South­ern Song dy­nasty, soups have de­fin­i­tive names, such as

West Lake beef geng and Sis­ter-in-law Song’s fish geng, boast­ing a writ­ten ref­er­ence some 800 years old. In­gre­di­ents might in­clude qual­ity fresh­wa­ter fish, deboned and flaked; egg whites that form del­i­cate blos­soms over the sur­face of the thick soup; and juli­enned bam­boo shoots for tex­tu­ral crunch.

Ducks are plen­ti­ful in the re­gion’s many marshes and lakes, and duck soup is an­other Hangzhou clas­sic. Im­mor­tal Duck Soup made with a whole duck boiled with Jin­hua ham for three hours. “[The chefs] lit three sticks of in­cense (which take ap­prox­i­mately three hours to burn), as if you were wor­ship­ping an im­mor­tal,” ex­plains Crys­tal Jade Jiang Nan’s chef Lau Yuk-lam, who hails from Taix­ing, near Yangzhou, an­other il­lus­tri­ous two-mil­len­nia-old city with a re­fined cui­sine that helped in­form the cook­ing styles of Jiang­nan. In Lau’s ver­sion of duck soup, he adds an ex­tra slab of goodqual­ity ham for the last few min­utes of sim­mer­ing to amp up the savoury umami lev­els. Un­like min­i­mal­ist Can­tonese broths, fancy home­made fish balls are added to the soup at the end. Hangzhou-style fish balls are like fluffy fishy marsh­mal­lows, made with noth­ing but fresh grass carp, hand-chopped to cre­ate an airy tex­ture.

Shang­hai flavours are more punchy than del­i­cate. The city’s sig­na­ture soup is yan­dux­ian, a rich, home-style stew. The name re­flects the in­gre­di­ents: yan means salted pork, du (with a glot­tal stop) is ono­matopoeia for the sound of boil­ing liq­uid, xian means fresh (pork). Rice wine adds a nice vi­brancy, and chunks of bam­boo shoot and knot­ted bean curd sheets soak up all that savoury umami.

Sichuan’s hot and sour soups

Cli­mate in­forms a cui­sine. In north­ern China, soups are heav­ier, de­signed to fill up stom­achs and keep bod­ies warm in harsh win­ters. In the hot south, light, restora­tive her­bal broths are the key to re­hy­drat­ing and re­plen­ish­ing en­ergy. In Sichuan’s Chengdu Basin, win­ters are hu­mid and freez­ing and, while there are a lot of dishes cooked in flavoured oils or liq­uids, peo­ple there barely drink any soup.

How­ever, it is fa­mous for one, which is now an in­ter­na­tional favourite: hot and sour soup. The ver­sion most peo­ple know is ac­tu­ally from Shang­hai. The tart­ness does not come solely from smoky Zhen­jiang (Chinkiang) vine­gar, but also from the pick­ling juices of fer­mented chill­ies or fer­mented ginger. It is tra­di­tion­ally thick­ened with blood. San Xi Lou has an au­then­tic Sichuanese hot and sour soup flavoured with pick­led wild Sichuan chill­ies that give it a sharp, clean tangi­ness laced with heat.

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