Your guide to Chinese soups and Cantonese broths.
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.
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.