Don’t Put Too Many Things in Your Soup
In Canton, China my student Ms. Huang said “We don’t have cookbooks like you do. My mother just said: “Don’t put too many things in your soup.”
Canton is said to have a “wet” cuisine: rice gruels and soups are prevalent. They are also mainly inexpensive.
Through the winter I make many soups based on the pork neck bones I buy at Just Local Food. One package will make two or three soups. At $3.99 a pound this main ingredient is not expensive.
It is interesting that pork broth is not standard here. My now dated cookbooks give recipes for beef and chicken stock, but never pork stock. This may be because pig’s meat contained a lot of fat years ago.
But most of the great soups of Canton are based on either pork or chicken stock. What are good things to add to a pork-stock soup? There are many choices, but one or two at a time is plenty.
I buy dried vegetable ingredients at United Noodle in Minneapolis (Minnehaha Avenue off Franklin). I view United Noodle as a sister store to Just Local Food because the Europe-descended staff and customers closely resemble JLF’s people. It is a very agreeable food store with thousands of items.
I go to the “gan” (dry) isle in the Chinese section to find things to put in my soup. For a long time, I used just dried cabbage but recently I have expanded the repertoire and have not yet added a dry item that did not work well. In my cupboard are dry mustard greens, dry lilies, dry bamboo shoots and dry sweet potato stalks. All are from the Chinese dry section except the sweet potato stalks which are from the Korean section. There are probably more dry items to find at UN; for example, I have not searched the Japanese section. Seaweed? It is worth a try.
On my last visit to United Noodle I swung past the fresh vegetables on my way out. I had not thought to look here because pungent things make the best soup, but I did pick up a bitter melon which turned out to be one of the best things to use.
To make a soup I whap the neck bones apart with my dull cleaver, put two or three in the soup pot with salt and water and a dry item (two, one hard and one soft, if I use bamboo shoots or lilies), take it to near a boil, skim, and then simmer it for a long time. The standard Cantonese soups is called “long fired soup.” I fire it in a clay pot brought back from China that can be taken right from the fridge to the flame and, when forgotten on the porch in freezing weather, does not break from expanded frozen contents. I suppose this durability can be attributed to 1,000 plus years of pottery making experience in the “Middle Kingdom.”
The final product does not fall into the “beautiful soups” category. It is hard-core home cooking. The Cantonese may say of it “Ho yam, m ho leng!” (Great taste; not pretty!)
I boil some rice to have with the soup and put a waste plate at my place to collect the bones. Chopsticks and a porcelain spoon are the best utensils to use. I have enjoyed many a winter noontime eating this soup and looking absently out the window at the snow in the backyard. I know for sure I am not in Canton, but I can taste Canton!