I would consider a Chinese-style consommé to be halfway between a Western consommé and a broth. Compared to Western consommés, the oriental (including some Japanese, Korean) analogues tend to be less labour intensive and come in a wide variety of flavours depending on your choice of ingredients. These are perfect for occasions when you want a light soup, to be served after a rich appetizer.
I actually started out with a few specific recipes in mind but having realized that many of the oriental ingredients are not universally available, I’ve turned it into a generic guide on making Chinese-style consommés, which by necessity is somewhat lengthy. If you have any experience in boiling soups, you can take note that the key principles of Chinese Consommé are:
- Double blanch your meat to preserve clarity
- Use preserved foods to layer in additional flavour
- Infuse natural sweetness using selected vegetables or fruits
- Simmer – cool – simmer to extract the maximum taste.
If you would further details, please read on….
Soup clarity is desired characteristic for all consommés. Whereas we reboil cold soup with egg whites in western consommés to clarify the soup, in this case we keep the soup clear by blanching raw meat before it is used. One typical way of doing this is to put the meat in a pot and add boiling water from a kettle until all the meat is submerged. Leave the pot covered and shake it occasionally to ensure all the surfaces are cooked. This seals the meat and keeps the coagulating juices of the meat trapped inside the meat. After a few minutes, discard the water and put aside the meat while you boil new water in the same pot. Put the blanched meat back in again only when the water is at full boil. This acts as a second seal to make doubly sure the soup remains clear. Blanching also reduces the gamey flavour inherent in many raw meats. The exception to the blanching rule is fresh seafood. Fish needs to be pan fried so it doesn’t disintegrate after continued boiling while clams need only be soaked in cold water.
The most common meats used are pork, chicken and perhaps beef but any kind of meat will do. Stick to cuts with low fat content, like the back or shin. Remove the skin from poultry to reduce fat content. Tails also make an excellent choice for soup because of their high gelatin content.
After meat, next in importance are the flavour enhancing preserved foods. These add another layer of taste without masking the soups main flavour. One of the most prized flavouring ingredients is conpoy, which are dried salted scallops. Their popularity lies in their versatility and counter-intuitively, they can be used even if your soup is meat based. Other types of desiccated shellfish (but not dried shrimp) can also be used. Dried shellfish should be soaked and softened in cold water for an hour or two and added to the soup with the soaking liquid.
Processed meat like cured ham is another flavour enhancer. They make soup taste really good. One of my favourites is luncheon meat. It sounds a bit unusual as luncheon meat is a lowly snack food but just ask any Korean and you’ll see. Luncheon meat is made largely from leftover animal parts, which contain a high proportion of ground cartilage and tendon (I bet you didn’t want to know that), which results in a high gelatin content. It goes without saying, dispose of the luncheon meat before anyone sees it.
Stock cubes are almost always used in preference to salt. They come in various flavours: chicken, pork, beef, fish, vegetable etc. It is important not to clash these with the primary meat. i.e. don’t use beef cubes in a pork based soup. Knoor has a chicken powder, which allows you to add exactly the amount you like. The Japanese have come up with powdered extract of dried seafood in the form of Hon Dashi pellets. These are a soup-maker’s dream come true and they come in smoky fish(bonito) or dried scallop flavours. The latter is a convenient substitute for the real thing. Some oriental herbs and spices can also be used but this is not that common. I use coriander seed powder on occasion. Soy sauce is never used except for some Japanese soups.
The natural sweetness of a Chinese consommé is always important. The operative word here is ‘natural’ and refined sugar cannot be used as a rule (in this case tradition is 100% right). Thus there is a need to make a distinction between the regular vegetables and the sweet ones. As strange as it might seem, ‘sweet’ vegetables are actually more commonly used than the ‘plain’ ones.
Some examples of sweet vegetables are carrots, corn, pumpkin, capsicum, chestnuts. Pitted (de-skinned) fruits such as apples and pears and dried red dates also fall under this grouping. Don’t go overboard with the sweetness as oriental soups are meant to be primarily salty. One ear of corn is sufficient for a medium pot of soup. Take extra care to remove delicate ingredients like pumpkin before they fall apart, and in fact many cooks like to discard the sweeteners before serving.
‘Plain’ vegetables are sometimes used, but just as often omitted. Unlike in western soups, the vegetables are not julienned but cut to bite-sized portions. Green vegetables are more often used in casual soups as they disintegrate easily and the taste of iron is considered unrefined. The better consommés will use either white vegetables or some combination of melons, roots, tubers, squashes and mushrooms. Dried mushrooms should be soaked in room temperature water till soft before use and have their stems discarded.
Boiling the Consommé
While knowing which items from each category go well with each other is an acquired skill, you probably can’t go too wrong with at least one item each from the preceding categories. When in doubt, just rely on common sense. Have an ingredient to water volume ratio of 1:2 to ensure your consommé has a rich taste.
Now we get on with the business of making the soup itself. The boiling technique is similar for any type of oriental consommé. As any Chinese grandmother will tell you, the secret to a good Chinese consommé is a long boiling time for the soup to mature. Here is my way to reduce the hassle of watching over a boiling pot. After blanching the meat as described earlier, add your other ingredients and simmer for about two hours. Leave the soup to cool to room temperature with the lid on. The cooling process somehow extracts additional flavour from the ingredients. Bring to a second simmer for another half hour before serving. I sometimes do the first simmer before going to bed, and then reboil in the morning (also to kill the germs) before serving the soup later that day. Alternatively, make the soup in the morning, and then reboil before serving at night.
Soup flavour evolves till it reaches a steady state so do not add your final seasoning (basically just plain salt, and on occasion white pepper) until the end of the second simmer. At this point you may want to skim the surface for floating debris. Depending on what meats you are using, you might still get oil spots. Use a soup decanter (the type with the spout starting from the bottom) if you have one, or a clever way to get rid of the oil is to put the soup in the refrigerator until the oil solidifies.
Besides the four main ingredient groups, there are two other categories of ingredients you can use with your soup:
- Theme Elements
These are usually added at the end to modify or overpower the character of the base stock. Bean Curd cut into small cubes is a good example and this is often added to fish soups to mitigate the intense flavour of fish. A spoonful or two of Miso can be added at the end in lieu of salt and flavour enhancers, changing the soup entirely into a different type. Freshly fried garlic or salted egg (poached in the soup at the last moment) are other transformational items which are commonly used.
- Texture Enhancers
These are used to adjust the viscosity of a soup and add additional body to an otherwise thin soup. There is a tradeoff involved when texture enhancers are used. On one hand you lose the clarity of the soup. On the other hand they have a multiplier effect in that it deceives the brain into thinking that a much greater amount of the other ingredients were used. I always tell myself, its better for the soup to taste good than look good. Some examples of texture enhancers are black-eyed peas, barley, rice, peanuts (raw not roasted), and pig’s trotters and (yuck!)chicken feet.
Some examples of soup combinations
- Chicken + Ginseng + Dried Dates + Glutinous Rice
- Chicken + Napa Cabbage + Dried Scallop
- Pork Shank + Arrow Root + Luncheon Meat + Black-eyed Beans
- Pork Ribs + Bacon + Watercress + Apple
- Fish + Leek + Bean Curd + Milk
- Ox tail + Turnip + Dried Dates
- Clams + Kelp + Miso + Sake