Rice may be a pivitol part of Cantonese food, but every Cantonese mother worth her hoisin sauce knows that no meal is complete without soup. I got this drilled into me from an early age: a home-cooked lunch or dinner must must must start with a tang, or else you might as well be eating barbarian (Western) food. (Oh, Chinese parents.) According to my mother, a good soup – whether it was chicken & ginseng, pork & lotus, or fish bone – opens the appetite and provides as much nutrients as the rest of the meal. (That, and the Cantonese are sticklers for dinner rituals.)
Her biggest concern before I set off for college many years ago was how the heck I could survive without her tang every night. “I’ll be fine. They have food on campuses,” I would say, rolling my eyes. And every time I came home to visit and exhibited anything that remotely suggested I was not 100% healthy, like coughing to clear my throat or looking pale in the winter due to lack of sun, she would shake her head knowingly. “It’s the lack of tang.”
Now that I am much older and not forced to have soup at every meal, I do find myself making Cantonese soups every now and again, for nostalgia’s sake. Well, and because many are quite easy in terms of hands-on prep. And one of the easiest and most versatile ingredients to work with is winter melon. Called dong gua (冬瓜) in both Mandarin and Cantonese, winter melon is pretty mellow in taste and absorbs the flavor of anything it’s cooked with. According to TCM, winter melon aids in clearing “heat”, so it’s especially good to have when you’re sick. The most common ingredients in winter melon soups include shrimp, Chinesed dates, goji berries, chicken, pork, or my personal pricey favorite, dried scallops.
This latest winter melon soup I made is with shiitakes, speck ham, and a vegetable stock base, a east-west co-mingling in the bowl. (Winter melon would also pair quite well with prosciutto or regular deli ham.) To prepare the melon, just slice off the hard outer rind, remove the seeds, and cube the meat. Then simmer for half an hour or until the melon is translucent, and add your other side ingredients.
I made this last week when I was pretty ill, with a cold, sore throat, and congestion. While I’m not a total TCM devotee, I’m willing to believe that the heat-clearing soup, along with tons of Nyquil, helped me recover in time for Halloween.
Other favorite soup recipes:
Winter Melon Soup with Shiitakes and Speck Ham
Serves 4 as an appetizer
1 2-pound wedge winter melon
8 dried shiitake mushrooms
3 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
1 1-inch piece ginger, sliced into matchsticks
Salt to taste
Thinly sliced scallions or sautéed leeks
A few slices speck ham, sliced on the diagonal
Slice off and discard rind from winter melon. Remove and discard seeds. Slice melon flesh to 1-inch cubes.
Soak shiitake mushrooms in room temperature water for 20 minutes, until softened. Squeeze out excess water, then thinly slice. Set aside.
Bring broth to boil and add winter melon. Simmer winter melon for 25 to 30 minutes, until melon becomes slightly transparent and soft. Add shiitakes and ginger and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add salt to taste. Divide soup into individual bowls.
If using leeks, briefly sauté in a wok with a little oil for 1 to 2 minutes. Top soup with sautéed leeks or scallions, then sliced speck ham. Serve while hot.