Sunday, November 7, 2010

Chinese herbal soup

China, as I'm learning, is a huge soup culture. "In China," writes Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, in her beautiful and informative Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, which I have just purchased at much greater expense than the online price, I see, "soups are nourishment and medicine, one-pot meals for a family and individual tonics. They can be—and are—made with almost anything available…" She goes on to explain that soup is part of a multi-course Chinese meal and is not served separately, for instance at the beginning of a meal, though it can be served at the mid-point of a meal as a palate-cleanser.

This soup is a medicine-type, or herbal, soup, good for dosing yourself with to keep up general health, or for added strength while recovering from an illness. I have exhausted myself with research this weekend, but there is no chance of my attempting to come across as any kind of an expert, since this is the first herbal soup I've ever tried, and since I was only even introduced to the concept last week, so if you want to read more about these items and find out more about Chinese herbal medicine, google the name of any one of the ingredients below for huge numbers of hits.  I'm just at the stage now where I can (barely) remember the names of the herbs:

A. Lotus seeds (Lian zi)
B. Goji berries (Gou qi zi)
C. Lily bulb (Bai he)
D. Polygonatum (Huang jing)
E. Fresh longan (Long yan rou)
F. Dioscorea opposita (Shan yao – this is the rhizome of Solomon's seal, which I grow in my garden – who knew?)
G. Red dates (Da zao)
H. Astragalus (Huang qi)

All of these items have many names in many languages; these seem to be the most common ones used in English. As you can see, several of them bear, in English, only their Latin names, meaning that the West doesn't even have common names for them.

So I guess it's longan season because yesterday at T & T I picked up a big bag of fresh longan for less than $2.00. Now you can see why they're called dragon eyes…anyway, I'll do a separate post on them later because they're quite neat.

The red dates aren't actually in the soup. These I purchased several weeks ago as "fresh dates." They were mostly white then. I tried one—no taste—and in my uninitiated state, thought "Come on, this isn't a date," and forgot about them in the back of the vegetable bin until yesterday when I was cleaning out the fridge to make room for this week's featured ingredients, and found they were drying out and turning red. So that's what kind of dates they are!

My soup recipe comes from here (you have to scroll down), though I made a few changes. I couldn't find codonopsis, so I used ginseng. Couldn't find liquorice root so I left it out. Didn't use seaweed. And finally, my broth was full of carrots and celery, so I added enoki mushrooms at the end instead of the other vegetables.

Here's what I did:

You need a good broth for this soup, as my initial experiments with the dried herbs yielded little in the way of flavour. The original soup is a chicken-based one, so I made a clear yellow broth from onions, carrot, turnip, celery, simmered together for about an hour, then with some sui choy for extra flavour and let that simmer another 15 minutes or so. A similar recipe is over here.

Now, to your broth, add the dried herbs, along with a little garlic, ginger, and salt.  Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for 45 minutes or so, until everything but the astragalus is tender. Fish out the astragalus, add the fresh longan, if using (if you're using dry it will already be in the soup), and any other fresh vegetables, tofu if you like, some soy sauce, sesame oil, and optional wine or sherry, simmer another five minutes, and try it…if you dare…

Actually, it was pretty tasty, a little sweet from the longan and goji berries, a little tart from something else. There was nothing in it I didn't like except the ginseng and that was maybe just too much of a good thing.

Will I make it again? Some variation of it, probably, since I am now committed to Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking. Anyway, it was a kewl experiment. I'll let you know about the health effects, if any…


  1. I don't know anything about chinese cooking, so I'm thrilled to read about this. So exciting!

  2. looks SO good! I love that kind of soup!
    would haveput more mushroom, maybe shitake.

    and I love longan!

  3. Very informative. Looking forward to your post on longan.

  4. These photos and the whole post are amazing! How exotic and beautiful.

  5. Definitely exotic and beautiful. Nothing like this on the menu at PF Changs.

  6. I thought I commented on this, but I see I was only thinking that I had...I was mesmerized by the exotic herbs and that beautiful broth...the first photo of it looks like a painting are a pretty fabric design.

  7. I really love this post. It was very informative and inspiring. Thanks so much for sharing!