Popular Post abcdefg Posted April 9, 2019 at 10:33 AM Popular Post Report Share Posted April 9, 2019 at 10:33 AM This is a dead simple soup made with only two main ingredients, a green leafy vegetable and plain tofu. Chinese have a soup with almost every meal. It often does double duty as the beverage. Tea is not served until after. The soup I'll be showing you today is "poor people food" not something you would find at an imperial banquet or a state dinner for big shots in Beijing. My China recipe basket here in Kunming has two parts. One for things that are quick to whip up on a week night when I'm eating alone and the other part for things that I would call "labor of love" projects that I would be more likely to make for guests on the weekend. This soup holds a place of honor in both camps. Let me explain. Tonight I made it for myself to have with a couple of sliced fresh tomatoes, steamed rice and a piece of roast duck 烤鸭 from a stall in the market. It supplied the green vegetable necessary for a balanced meal and it only took five or ten minutes to prep and half that to cook. Two weekends ago I made it as part of a dinner for friends to go alongside a Chinese chicken curry served atop rice 咖喱鸡肉盖饭 and a "smashed" cucumber 拍黄瓜 salad. It shines in a situation like that because it can be finished at the last minute with minimum labor. Here's what kucai 苦菜 looks like while still growing (photo from Baidu,) and after I purchased 3 Yuan worth and brought it home for supper today. One of the games I no longer enjoy playing is "What is this stuff called in English." It's best just to refer to it as "kucai," (kootz-eye) using its Chinese name. Why? Because the dictionary says that in English it would be "bitter sow thistle." How unappetizing can you get? I would never eat anything with such an ugly handle, even though I love "kucai." (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) It is one of those vegetable that you can find any day of the year in a fresh market or even in the supermarket. It's so popular that people here often just call it 青菜, a generic term for "greens," kind of like in the American south you might say "greens" instead of taking time to be clear about whether you mean mustard greens or turnip greens or collard greens. It has a slightly bitter flavor, prized by Chinese because it tends to offset other dishes that have prominent spices or are fatty. Also, it has "cooling" properties that make it great for use in hot weather. Lots of Chinese cooking is about preparing things that regulate internal heat and thereby act as preventive medicine. Baidu (a popular online Chinese-language encyclopedia) says there are 9 distinct varieties that are grown in different parts of the country. My market usually has three or four. I tend to lump them into ones with very large leaves and ones with relatively small leaves. These latter are more tender and less bitter; they are what I usually buy. They go by the non-scientific nickname of 小苦菜 or "small" kucai. In buying look at the roots as well as the leaves; they are a good indicator of when the plant was picked. The roots should have small filamentous "rootlets" as well as just the main white part. I try to usually shop for vegetables in the morning because sellers often keep misting them with water all through the day so they will look nice. Towards late afternoon, they get soggy; the flavor becomes "dull." Once I get them home, I trim off the roots and cut them into pieces about three inches long. My Chinese friends gasp in horror at that level of waste, but I honestly don't think they add anything and they are devilishly hard to get clean. Wash the greens well in several changes of water, until all that rich red earth is rinsed away. Nothing is worse than gritty soup; it will cost you your Michelin star. If you take a mid-morning stroll along the small side streets of my old and not-terribly-affluent neighborhood, you will see young waitresses sitting on low woven bamboo stools 草凳子 outside small open front cafes washing vegetable in pans while gossiping about their boyfriends and wondering if that handsome new cook might still be available. It's a ritual of meal prep that gets handed down to the least senior employees. Some dishes require soft tofu 嫩豆腐 to turn out well, and others must have firm tofu 老豆腐 instead. This soup can be made with either kind. I bought a generous chunk, about 450 grams, for 2 Yuan. Used half of it for this dish and put the other half in the fridge to scramble with eggs tomorrow morning. Rinse the tofu and cut it into bite-sized pieces. The kind I bought today was firm. It's just what the tofu lady had that looked freshest. Put some frozen stock on the stove to thaw in a two quart pot. Add enough water to fill the pot about two-thirds full. I sometimes make bone stock 骨头汤 (mostly pork bones) and chicken stock 鸡汤 on a rainy afternoon when I'm bored and freeze it in convenient "drinking glass" sized chunks. If you don't have stock, you can use chicken bouillon 鲜鸡汁 or just plain water. I sliced three small tomatoes. Now that it's spring, they again have lots of flavor. I usually buy smaller tomatoes that are gown in open air 露天 instead of the huge photogenic ones that are raised in large plastic tents 塑料大棚。I prefer the ones that someone raises as a sideline instead of the ones that are produced by the ton. Cannot swear it, but I think they usually taste better. My favorite egg seller's middle-school daughter raises some as a pocket-money project. That's where these came from today. When the water and stock come to a boil, put in a scant teaspoon of salt and add the greens. Let the pot come to a boil again, and then add the tofu. When it boils again, the soup is done. You want the vegetables to be tender but still have some crunch, and you don't want the tofu to cook apart. Taste and see if it needs more salt. Finish the soup with a teaspoon or two of sesame oil 香油 and a large pinch of MSG 味精 (about a fourth of a teaspoon.) A word of caution about Chinese salt: it can be very fine, making it easy to over-salt things. For cooking I prefer a coarse sea salt or large-granule Kosher salt, but can't always find those here. Before serving it make a small bowl or two of dipping sauce (zhan shui 蘸水)。You serve this to each diner so he or she can use it to add flavor to some bites of vegetable or tofu. You lift individual bites out of your soup bowl with your chopsticks and dip them into the sauce, using as little or as much as you want. Sometimes I use ground red pepper 干辣椒粉 but tonight I used a home-made red chili sauce 红油 that I had in the cupboard. A tablespoon of the hot stuff, a tablespoon of aged vinegar 老陈醋 and a tablespoon of clear soup from the pot. Serve it up proudly with a smile. It's not a complete meal on its own, but it plays well with others: easy to combine with whatever else you might feel like making or already have on hand, including left-over pizza. I like that it does not compete for attention with the star of the show, but it still adds a lot to the overall dining experience, sort of rounds it out, makes it complete. Try it and see what you think. Might add as a footnote that if you are eating out in China, this is a "failsafe" thing to order in any small restaurant, north, south, east, west. No weird "surprise" ingredients and a good way to get some plain vegetables when you tire of them arriving at your table over-salted and swimming in oil. 4 1 Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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