I grew up in a first-generation Chinese Canadian household, one in which G.I. Joe and art school competed against Hong Kong chapter dramas and Cantonese language classes. The one thing I never questioned, however, was the food.
Actually, all my fondest memories and associations with my culture are related to food. To me, traditions, special occasions and holidays are all about what's being served at the dinner table.
Before my sisters and I were old enough to prepare dinner ourselves, my mother was the primary cook. We usually had traditional Chinese meals with white rice and a variety of dishes served with it. Mom almost always made soup, too, served up before rice was dished out. Since my Cantonese language skills were less than stellar, these special broth concoctions brewed with what I thought were exotic and magical ingredients each earned a special made-up name: some were more helpful in description than others, like "watercress soup". Others were utterly baffling, like my favorite: "orange stuff soup."
Mom always touted the benefits of the soups, especially the ones we weren't as keen on. I learned to love them all, despite my skepticism of their actual health benefits. But as my husband likes to say, five thousand years of Chinese history can't be wrong. And I'm sure my doctor can't argue with that...
This weekend, we went to T & T, an Asian grocery store owned by Loblaws, to pick up a few basics. It was in the dried goods aisle that I decided to try my hand at some of my mother's recipes...even though most of those recipes could be summed up thusly:
"Boil some water. Add stuff. Boil it a lot. It's soup."
This is almost exactly how the process is described to me. For years, I asked my mother for more clear instructions, about the ingredients, what they were called, where to buy them, what measurements to use. She wasn't forthcoming. Most of her knowledge isn't written down anywhere. She doesn't have cookbook she follows. And she doesn't know the English names of most of the ingredients because it's only been in the last few years that companies specializing in Asian groceries have been making an attempt beyond the usual "preserved vegetable" or "dried nut" to accurately translate or describe their products.
Standing in the aisle at T & T, I could only rely on my memory of how stuff in soups generally looked. I had an idea that certain things were meant for one soup but not others. They also sold soup kits: packages of dried herbs and ingredients for various soups. However, therein lay my translation problem: the names of the soup were in phonetic Chinese. Which of these premade kits were for "orange stuff soup"?
I decided to stock up on anything I recognized and work from there. After a perusal of the vegetables, I decided to make "carrot and green thing with dried vegetable and nummy pork" soup.
According to my receipt, the "green thing" turns out to be green radish, which looks like a green carrot. Actually, for most of my life, I'd believed that's what it was. The dried vegetable, according to the package, is dehydrated cole, which expands to about five times its size when boiled, I realized a little too late. As for the rest, I added dried almond seeds and preserved dates. The base was made of pork neck bones.
I went home and laid out all my ingredients. Dried things needed soaking, so I randomly threw a handful of almond seeds and four dates into hot water. I used about 1/3 of the package of dehydrated cole. I started with boiling about 6 cups of water and adding four pork neck bones, then peeling and chopping 2 big carrots and one green radish.
I added the rest of everything else in and let it boil, simmer and soak, occasionally adding more water as it boiled off and the cole expanded. I added salt. The end result, after about 2 hours of simmer on medium low heat, was, indeed soup.
After a little research, it turns out I crossed a couple of recipes: dehydrated cole soup has elements in common with carrot and green radish soup. I ended up putting them together for some kind of super soup, apparently. It tasted good, though, and I haven't died yet, so I can assume I'm doing something right.
Guess Mom was right about the basics. Boil stuff and it's soup.