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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Larry Litt | Taipei soup

Three Soups-A-Day In Old Taipei

It’s 6 a.m. in Taipei City, on the island of Taiwan, Republic of China. A
grey-blue dawn is breaking high over the city that never sleeps. The streets
are moving at a frantic pace: a crazed dance of cars, trucks, bicycles, small
motorcycles, and innumerable motor scooters.

I’m waiting for my Taiwanese friends on this first day of my visit. Miss Cho
and Mr. Kuo, two Taiwanese artists, have promised to take me for a
traditional breakfast.

“Let’s have ‘to-jiang,’ fresh soy milk,” says Cho, “and `jook’, fresh made
rice soup with veetables you add.”

I don’t usually have soup for breakfast, being a whole grain man myself. But
since no one in Taipei’s breakfast restaurants has ever heard of natural
whole grain cereal for breakfast, I joined in the line holding a tin tray
like the rest of the workers.


 



As I pass the first server behind the counter I’m handed a large soup bowl of
steaming hot congee, very soft rice soup. A step or two on down the line are
half a dozen hot and cold condiments. I point to some very green chopped,
stirfried Chinese broccoli, thinly sliced white daikon radish triangles,
cubed pickled yellow turnip, four inch squares of dried black sea weed sheets
similar to nori. They’re given to me in small plastic bowls.

I bring my tray back to the table and set the large bowl and four small bowls
at my place. I look around for a spoon. All eyes are on me. Suddenly, Cho
picks up her chopsticks and puts a small amount of her vegetables on top of
the congee bowl. She’s eating soup and vegetables without a spoon! I know
they’re waiting for me to do the same. I can use chopsticks for the
condiments, but soup?

‘When in Rome’ as the saying goes, so I dipped my sticks into the bowl and
came up with...nothing. I tried again with the same result. “I can’t eat
soup with chopsticks,” I complained, “Is it proper to use a spoon, if one
isn’t Chinese?”

“Very proper. It takes years of practice to perfect eating soup with
chopsticks,” says Cho laughing, “and we don’t have that much time for
breakfast. You can practice at home.”

She handed me a flat bottomed plastic spoon. I added the condiments and
topped the full blue bowl off with toasted black sesame seeds and a dash or
two rich brown mushroom based soy sauce. The rice soup, vegetables, and
sauce melded together making a panoply of flavors and textures that I wanted
to bring home.

“Congee is real Chinese medicine food,” says Kuo, “When I was a kid, my
mother used to feed it to me when I was sick. I think it must be the
equivalent of European chicken soup.”

“I always thought hot and sour soup was the Chinese chicken soup,” I replied.

“No,” said Kuo. “that’s the cure for hangovers, the spicier the better.”

I remembered that I stopped eating hot and sour soup in Chinese restaurants
when I discovered that chicken broth and pork bits are essential ingredients.
I’d heard that in Taiwan there are vegetarian restaurants that make meatless
hot and sour soup which tastes exactly like the standard restaurant variety.

When I asked Cho if we could go to one of these restaurants she said we were
already scheduled to go that evening with Miss Dong and Mr. Wang, two
practicing Buddhist vegetarians.

After half an hour’s search for a parking spot, we walked into The Kwan See
Yin Restaurant.

“Kwan Yin is the goddess of eternal mercy,” said Miss Dong, “Maybe
vegetarianism is the most merciful way to eat and that’s why this name for
the restaurant.”

On Kwan See Yin restaurant’s business card is the beautifully calligraphed
phrase in Mandarin: “Welcome to wide and diversely planted prosperous fields”
(This name is my own ecumenical translation.)

At the table I was handed a ten page menu with photographs of hundreds of
dishes captioned with English translations. I turned to the soup pages where
13 soups were colorfully pictured.

“I want to try them all,” I said.

“You have four days here, so you can. Tonight we’ll try their hot and sour
special soup. It’s one of my favorites,” said Cho.

“What’s in it,” I asked.

“The usual stuff but no chicken or pork.”

“What is the usual stuff?”

“Not translatable. We eat first, before talking about food, then we know
what we’re talking about.”

The dishes arrived on huge trays carried by three waitpersons. When they
were placed on the table we had three soups and three vegetable dishes to
share for five people. The Hot and Sour soup was dished into small bowls by
our server.

When everyone had a full bowl in front of them we were handed white plastic
flat bottomed spoons to use for the soups.

“Why didn’t we have spoons for breakfast?” I asked Cho?

“Because this is a better restaurant than the one this morning. More
tourists come here. That one is for Taipei people only.”

On the menu were 13 soups. The English captions described the ingredients in
most cases. One caught my eye. “What is Hailike seaweed soup?” I asked our
hosts.

“I never heard of Hailike seaweed,” said Kuo, “all I know is the name of that
soup in English is `The Dragon Flies and The Phoenix Dances.’”

“What’s in it?”

“Seaweed,” laughed Cho, “and vegetables like everything else!”

I’d had my first lesson in the two worlds of Taipei, one for the residents
and one for the tourists. When I asked our hosts to try and get me some of
the recipes for the soups I wondered if I would be given access to these
secrets.

Next morning my hosts handed me a sheaf of handwritten pages with recipes.
We spent part of the morning eating congee, making plans to visit Taoist
temples, and translating the recipes.

I’ve adjusted some of them for American Oriental grocery store shopping. But
a few spices purchased will go a long way to making many varieties of
authentic Taiwanese vegetarian soups. Remember to add different kinds of
well chopped, stirfried and raw vegetables to create your own specialties.

All soup recipes are for 6 to 8 people.


Hot and Sour soup

This is the basic recipe. You can add celery slices, match stick cut
carrots, etc. as desired to add color and variety. More or less red pepper
and vinegar controls the hot and sourness of the soup. I like it spicy, so
adjust for your own tastes.

4-5 1/4" slices of peeled ginger root
1-2 tspns Five Spice Powder (a powdered mixture of star anise, cloves,
fennel, cinnamon, and peppercorns available at Oriental groceries. Use
sparingly until you’re used to its aromatic powers.)
1-2 Tblspns Tianjin preserved pickled cabbage (available in Oriental
groceries both canned and in a simple but quite elegant brown ceramic jar.)
3-5 Tblspns white vinegar
3-5 Tblspns light soy sauce
1 tspn cayenne red pepper
1-2 Tblspns dark Oriental sesame oil
6 or 7 dried black Chinese mushrooms soaked for at least 20 minutes in hot
water, stems discarded, caps sliced into quarters or eighths (Available in
Oriental groceries. You do not need very expensive ones for this soup.)
A medium sized, peeled and thinly sliced onion
4 ounces canned, sliced bamboo shoots
2 ounces dried wood ears (also called cloud mushrooms or ‘wu-erh’in Mandarin.
Available in Oriental food stores.)
2-3 chopped scallions
1/2 lb. sugar-cube sized tofu chunks
Golden needles (dried lily buds available in Oriental grocery stores. They
should be a rich gold color and flexible even when dry.)
3 cups water or vegetarian broth
2-3 Tblspns vegetable cooking oil

Heat oil in a large soup pot. Add and stir fry the sliced ginger, sliced
onion, black mushrooms, pickled cabbage, and sliced bamboo shoots for 4-5
minutes. Pour in the water or stock, bring to a boil and simmer for 5
minutes. Add the spices, dried vegetables, soy sauce, vinegar, cayenne and
let simmer for another 5-10 minutes. I don’t add any thickener, but corn
starch dissolved in hot water is the usual. Serve in individual bowls adding
tofu chunks, scallions and a drizzle of sesame oil to each portion. Add some
fresh chopped coriander leaves for a change.

Tofu Vegetable Soup

This is a simple soup that uses vegetable stock as a base. You can add just
about any vegetable to it, but remember, the tofu goes in last, just a few
minutes before serving.

1 block of tofu cubed about 3/4 to 1 inch
1-2 Tblspns cooking oil
1 medium size thinly sliced onion
1 cup canned, rinsed straw mushrooms (Available in Oriental groceries)
1 cup bamboo shoots
1 cup sliced vegetable of your choice
1-2 pinches of salt
1-2 dashes of Oriental chili oil
2 pints of vegetarian soup stock
1 Tblspn wood ears (available in Oriental groceries)
2 Tblspns soy sauce
Some chopped scallions or slivered, toasted almonds as a garnish
Heat the cooking oil and stir fry the sliced onion for 3-5 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer while stirring for about 5
minutes. Add stock, bring to a boil, turn down and simmer five minutes. Add
the cubed tofu and simmer 5 more minutes. Taste and add seasonings as
desired. Serve in bowls and garnish.

Mushroom Soup

This soup can use fresh, canned, and dried ‘shrooms in any combination.
Dried black mushrooms come in many grades, which will forever be a mystery to
me. I buy cheap ones for soup and dearer ones for stir frying. So far I can
tell the difference.
Golden, straw, oyster, and button mushrooms generally come canned. If you’re
lucky enough to find any of them fresh, buy them, run, don’t walk, to the
nearest kitchen and prepare them.
Fresh mushroom soup is a little bit of heaven. This one is a meaty soup
served with plain sticky rice and nori dried seaweed.

2-3 slices of fresh ginger root
2-3 Tblspns cooking oil
2-3 Tblspns mushroom soy sauce
1/2 lb any fresh mushroom trimmed and sliced into quarters or eighths
6-8 dried black Chinese mushrooms soaked for at least 20 minutes stems
removed and sliced into quarters or eighths
1 can either straw, golden, oyster or button mushrooms, drained and sliced
spoon size
1/2 cup canned drained bamboo shoots or canned and drained baby corns
Pinch or two of salt
Sesame oil and fresh coriander leaves for garnish
3 cups of water or vegetable stock

Heat the cooking oil in a stock pot. Add and stir fry ginger and salt for
two minutes, add chopped and drained mushrooms stir frying them for 2-3
minutes. Add the water or stock slowly. Bring to a boil and add the bamboo
shoots or baby corns.

Congee
Version 1
1 cup of white glutinous rice
6 cups of water

Put the rice and water in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Then simmer for at
least one hour or until the rice is very soft.
Version 2 from leftover rice

Put any left over, already cooked white rice into a pot with triple the
amount of water. Bring to a boil and simmer 15 minutes or until the rice is
soft. This is a great way to use all the rice you make for dinner during
breakfast the next day.

Add your favorite chopped stir fried vegetables, soy sauce, fresh chopped
scallions, fresh chopped coriander, etc. There are no limitations, I saw
fresh and dried seaweed put into congee.

Wintermelon Soup
3-4 cups of 1-1 1/2" cubed fresh winter melon pieces
3-4 slices of fresh ginger root
2-3 Tblspns vegetable cooking oil
7-8 Black dried Chinese mushrooms soaked for at least 20 minutes stems
removed and sliced into quarters or eighths
1-2 Tblspns light soy sauce
4-5 cups of water

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the ginger slices, mushrooms, and salt.
Stirfry 2 minutes. Add the cubed melon pieces, water or stock and bring to a
boil. Simmer for 30 minutes. Taste and add soy sauce as needed.

 

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