Soup. My rejoice. We Chinese can spare the appetizers but we can hardly go without a soup for a decent meal. It doesn't matter whether it's served as entree or finale. In fact, in some areas, soup is served as a last act, as a token to herald the end of the feast, quite similar to the time when coffee is served, I guess.
With our vast population and scope of land, it's inevitable to have many differences in the custom and the living style between the south and the north of China. This happens to soup as well. What I want to say is, in short, the southerners put a whole lot more emphasis on the nutraceutical effect(s) of a soup than the people of the north do. A foodie from the north would tell you a good soup is one that rich with edible ingredients, regardless with greens or meats. Ask the same to a soup devotee from the south, however, would get you the answer that a good soup is one that make with valuable herbs with good healing results.
Since when did the diversity become markable is beyond me, as it does to many food experts in China. We just knew. The truth is, the nutraceutical effect of different food is documented as early as the dynasty of Zhong, which is long before the era of Confucius. There are numerous classics exploring this subject because good health and thence, longevity has never ceased to be fashionable in China.
One explanation, or you may take it as an observation, points to the difference in weather. Considering the wintry weather in the north, it is easy to understand that their soup is more about giving the body the much needed energy -- to make the body feel warm and strong. While in the south, the weather is warm and soggy already, the raison d'etre for a soup is not about hunger and energy. The value of soup goes higher than that to the health of the body -- about how to make the yang and ying of the body balance (this applies not just to food but almost all facets of Chinese culture, right?). For example, to sweep away the dampness from the body in the hot summer, or to moisten the organs and joints in the dry winter, or even to lift up the appetite, or so forth. To some extent, we can see that on the one end of the spectrum is a devotion to utilizing seasonal produces from mother nature (north) while on another end is dedication on tendering the seasonal needs of the body (south). Look close in this, we see a tango of fullness (north) vs. wellness (south).
Like I've always said, with the addition or the deduction of this and that, there can be millions of recipe for soups in China (just last week I made a silkie chicken soup with fresh milk [烏雞鮮奶湯], more on that later). In a broader sense, however, we can still make some classification of the soups from the medicinal effect standpoint. the following are some of the most popular nutraceutical virtues a soup can improve your health: supplement (進補), moisten (滋潤), cooling (清熱), and harmonize (調和).
Take the soup I'm sharing today for example. The wild kudzu vine in the soup is perfect for removing the dirt-heat from your body while the snakehead, rich in protein, is the perfect candidate to moisterize your organs and provide vital energy at the same time; both consider providential for autumn.
The ingredients to prepare for this soup is simple. The major two are the wild kudzu vine, ye gen cai and the snakehead, san yue. Snakehead is a kind of freshwater fish see very common in the waters of China. It may look forbidding at first sight, but it tastes great with its flesh sweet and fresh, and hence works magic as a taste catalyst in soup or broth.
Next up is the addition of some herbs. There are only two herbs needed in this recipe. The first one is a luo han guo (羅漢果), or grosvenor momordica in English. This is a produce from the Guangdong province of China. In TCM, the nature of this fruit is cooling and it has the merits of moistening the lung, reliving cough and phlegm. So it complements to the theme brought about by the kudzu vine and snakehead very well. Noteworthy is that the taste of luo han guo has been described by quite many people as too pungent. Peel it off and sniff it for a while. If it is too over-the-top for you, you can always reduce the portion to half. On the right we have five me zao (蜜枣), or glace/candied date in English. The purpose of adding glace dates in the soup is mainly for the sugary flavor, though it does have the function of detoxification as well.
Snakehead -- one
Wild kudzu vine -- 700g
Pork(bony cuts) -- 900g
Luo han guo -- one
Glace dates -- five
Dressing the fish is the most trickery part for this recipe. I don't know how it is done in your place, but in Hong Kong we can always have the fish dressed in the marketplace. Without any extra charge, we can ask the fishmonger to drain, scale and remove the gills and guts. Of course, you still need to do a bit of scraping and rinsing on the fish in your own kitchen to make sure it is clean. Once the dressing is done, fry it in the pan for a while. Traditional Chinese kitchen wisdom says this is the way to get rid of the fishy stink and to help release the flavor of the fish in the soup.
Then you can add water in the pan and start boiling it. The portion listed above is one serves for about 4 to 5 so roughly ten rice bowls of water will do. While boiling the water, rinse the wild kudzu vine and the herbs. Before you add the luo han guo to the water, you need to peel it off. The pork, meanwhile, will taste better if you blanch it a bit before you dunk it to the soup. It doesn't take long. Just two minutes will be enough to wipe out the blood and grease.
Now the water in the pan is bubbling hot, add all the ingredients into the pan. Boil over high heat for about 20 minutes. Then, boil for another 2 and a half hours over gently heat. Last, add salt for flavor.