Kosher Chinese soups

With the Chinese New Year just around the corner it's a great time to start using Chinese flavors to enhance your soups.

Chinese soup 521 (photo credit: Nick Koon/MCT)
Chinese soup 521
(photo credit: Nick Koon/MCT)
The upcoming Chinese New Year inspires me to cook Chinese food. I love using a variety of Chinese condiments, from bottled sauces to dried ingredients such as mushrooms, vegetables and fish. Most often, I opt to give familiar foods Chinese character by using a few simple seasonings. Fortunately many popular Chinese flavorings – soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh ginger and green onions – are readily available. Using Chinese flavors is a quick way to enhance chicken, vegetable and noodle soups.
In Chinese homes, soups are very important.
“At Chinese family meals, soup is considered the beverage,” wrote Helen Chen, author of Chinese Home Cooking.
“Cold water, soft drinks and mineral water are not served. In fact, it is an old wives’ tale that you’ll get a stomachache from drinking ice water with meals. Since the soup is mainly a beverage and palate refresher, it is more common to serve clear soups made with a light broth base than thick soups.”
According to Chen, most Chinese soups are made with Chinese chicken broth, which, she notes, is much lighter than most chicken stocks. Beef or lamb would be too strong. Her broth, made from chicken bones or wings, a few gingerroot slices, a whole green onion and dry sherry but no salt, simmers for an hour and a half to two hours. With such a flavorful broth ready, soups of meat and vegetables can be put on the table in a few minutes. The broth can be served on its own; all it needs is to be seasoned with salt and with chopped green onion.
For a more substantial soup, Chen adds shredded meat or chicken, which she mixes with soy sauce, sherry and cornstarch and cooks in the broth with sliced ginger. To this soup she also adds greens or even thin slices of cucumber.
Occasionally Chen makes soups of tofu with shredded Chinese radish or with black mushrooms. Even for these meatless soups, chicken broth is the base.
Noodle soups play a different role in Chinese menus, according to Chen.
“Noodles are most popular in the wheat-growing north of China, but all Chinese enjoy a steaming bowl of noodles as a light meal or midnight snack.”
To make noodle soup, she cooks shredded chicken breast in chicken broth with sherry and ginger slices and adds greens. She pours the soup over hot cooked noodles and drizzles each bowl with sesame oil.
THE CANTONESE have developed their own style of soup-like dishes with noodles.
“The ‘soup noodle’ is the mainstay of Cantonese noodle houses throughout the world,” wrote my friend Linda Burum, author of Asian Pasta. “It is not a soup, but noodles in a little broth served with a variety of toppings.
Like other Chinese soups, it begins with a flavorful chicken broth.”
Burum seasons her broth with light soy sauce, peppercorns and crushed ginger.
To prepare the soup, Burum flavors the broth with Chinese rice wine, sesame oil and soy sauce and heats thin slices of cooked meat or chicken in it. She ladles the broth with the meat over cooked noodles and tops each serving with crisp-tender broccoli florets and a sprinkling of green onions.
Chinese cooks vary the green vegetables and sometimes substitute fish balls or fillets for the meat, but the base is still chicken broth.
When I make vegetable soups as a main course, I keep my broth vegetarian and add the same flavorings that the Chinese use in chicken broth. Unlike Chinese vegetable soups, my full-meal soups are hearty and chunky. Often I include vegetables such as carrots, potatoes or zucchini that do not usually appear in classic Chinese vegetable soups.
For me it’s the fresh ginger, green onion and soy sauce, as well as a drizzle of sesame oil, a splash of sherry or a dab of fiery Chinese chiligarlic paste, that give my soups Chinese flavor and remind me of the world of Chinese dishes I have yet to explore.
The writer is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook.
For this main-course vegetable soup, I cook part of the vegetables separately in water so they are just tender and retain their bright colors. I use their cooking liquid as the broth for the soup.
I love the Chinese technique of adding leafy greens to the soup at the last minute. When I have very tender greens, such as baby spinach leaves, I add them directly to each bowl of hot soup; the heat of the soup is enough to wilt the leaves, and they remain vivid green and very fresh-tasting.
6 cups vegetable broth or water 170 gr. (6 oz.) baby potatoes (optional) a 110-gr. (1⁄4-lb.) piece pumpkin or butternut squash (optional) 1 cup diced mild radish or kohlrabi (optional) 2 carrots, 1 sliced and 1 diced 85 gr. (3 oz.) green beans, ends removed, halved 1 cups coarsely chopped cabbage (optional) 1 large onion, chopped 1 to 11⁄2 Tbsp. chopped gingerroot 1 or 2 celery ribs, diced (optional) 350 to 450 gr. (12 to 16 oz.) tofu, cut in cubes 2 or 3 tsp. soy sauce, or to taste, or salt Freshly ground white pepper 1 cup whole baby spinach leaves or shredded regular spinach leaves 4 to 6 tsp. chopped green onion Few drops of Asian sesame oil (optional)
Bring broth or water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add baby potatoes and pumpkin, cover and cook over medium heat for two or three minutes. Add radish, return to a simmer and cook for four minutes. Add the sliced carrot and the green beans, return to a simmer and cook for three minutes. Add the cabbage and simmer for three minutes. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon.
Add the onion and gingerroot to the broth in the saucepan, bring to a boil and cook for 15 minutes. Add the diced carrot and celery and simmer for 10 minutes. Add tofu, cover and cook for three minutes or until heated through. Add soy sauce and pepper to taste.
Dice pumpkin. Halve baby potatoes, if you like. If cooked vegetables are no longer hot, reheat them briefly in the pan of soup or in the microwave.
To serve, ladle soup with tofu and vegetables into four bowls, putting some of each kind of vegetable in each of bowl. Add spinach leaves and stir briefly. Sprinkle with green onions and sesame oil and serve.Makes 4 servings
This recipe is from Chinese Home Cooking. The soup gains color and flavor from spinach or Chinese cabbage. Instead of Chinese rice wine, Helen Chen prefers dry sherry, which her mother always used at home and in their restaurants.
Chen uses a Chinese cleaver to shred chicken breast. See note on shredding chicken breast following the recipe.
225 gr. (1⁄2 lb.) Chinese dried noodles, thin spaghetti or vermicelli 4 cups Chinese chicken broth (flavored with ginger and green onion) or packaged chicken broth mixed with water 2 slices unpeeled gingerroot, 2.5 cm. x 3 mm. (1 in. x 1⁄8 in.) each 1⁄2 tsp. salt, or to taste 1⁄8 tsp. ground white pepper 450 gr. (1 lb.) skinless boneless chicken breast, shredded 1⁄2 tsp. cornstarch 1 tsp. dry sherry
4 cups spinach or Chinese cabbage, washed and cut into 5-cm. (2-in.) pieces Sesame seed oil, for garnish
Bring 3 liters (3 quarts) of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the noodles and cook until a little more tender than al dente but not mushy. Stir occasionally to keep the noodles from sticking together. When done, drain, rinse thoroughly with cold water and drain well. Set aside.
While noodles are cooking, mix chicken broth, gingerroot, salt and pepper together in a saucepan and heat to boiling.
Mix chicken, cornstarch and sherry together in a bowl. When broth is boiling, add chicken mixture, stirring constantly until chicken shreds are separated and white, about one minute. Stir in the spinach and cook just until they are wilted. If using Chinese cabbage, cook for about two minutes, or until white parts are translucent.
When ready to serve, reheat the noodles by rinsing in hot water. Drain well and divide among four individual bowls. Spoon the hot soup over the noodles and top with pieces of chicken and vegetables (or put the noodles in the soup until they are hot, spoon them into the bowls with chicken and vegetables, and pour on the hot broth). Drizzle 1⁄2 tsp. sesame oil into each bowl. Serve hot.
Note: To shred chicken breast: With the blade angled down, slice the meat into wide, thin pieces. Pile the pieces on top of each other and cut across into shreds.Makes 3 to 4 servings