No Chinese meal can be complete without soup

In China the soup is neither the first course nor necessarily the last or middle course. It is considered a beverage and is served at different times during the meal instead of cold water or tea. Often a big bowl of soup is on the table and it stays from the beginning of the meal to the end, even at breakfast.

Tea is not served during the meals, a surprise to many Americans, but it is served before or after meals, and we saw it poured frequently during the day during our two-week tour of China. It was served gratis, on the train, at the many briefings we had when we visited a commune or a factory, at some gift shops , and at press conferences.

The Chinese never drink cold water with a meal, but bottled water and an orange drink are available to foreigners and tourists.

Soup is as important to the Chinese, perhaps, as ice water is to Americans. No meal is served without it, and at banquets as many as three kinds are usually included. Between courses they may be to whet the appetite, or they may be for transition between spicy and mild dishes or simply to quench the thirst.

The simplest and lightest Chinese soups are designed to accompany rich, heavy foods, and are made of water that has been freshly boiled, then poured over minced greens and seasoned lightly.

The more complex Chinese soups are the famous bird's nest and shark's fin soups, which are elegant and expensive prestige dishes, always served at very important banquets.

Neither shark's fin nor bird's nest offer much flavor by themselves. They are used for texture, borrowing the flavor from other ingredients. Making up flavors for things that have no taste is something the Chinese have done in many recipes such as the ones for shark's fin, bird's nest, and for fish maw and beche-de-mer, or sea cucumber. Both shark's fin and bird's nest can be purchased in Chinese grocery stores in dried form.

Probably one of the most familiar soups in the Western Hemisphere is Egg Drop Soup, made by pouring eggs into hot broth so that the egss cook into little ribbons. Other now familiar ones include Wanton Soup, Sizzling Rice Soup, and the Sichuan hot and sour soups, which have vinegar and pepper added to give them the tantalizing hot and sour flavors.

We were served many kinds of soups in China, some mild and refreshing, others unusual and interesting, and one that impressed everyone, even though some of us had made and eaten it previously. This was the famous winter melon soup, served in a melon that had been hand carved into a handsome tureen. It was a special treat and magnificent to look at.

Winter melon can be bought in Chinese stores, where it is sold by slice. But it can be grown in a backyard garden, which is a tremendous economy. If you grow your own you will be able to use the whole melon as the serving dish, carved or plain, according to your talent.

Winter melon soup should be clear, savory, and not rich, because it is supposed to bring some of the cool of winter to the summer heat. The name winter melon comes from the winter powder or dust on the dark green melons at harvest time, which looks like frost.

Inside, the melon is white, and the pulp turns soft and translucent when cooked. As the soup is served, bits of melon are scooped from the inside and added to the broth.

Many recipes for winter melon soup are made with a chicken broth base with ginger, sliced ham, and the melon. Others are more elaborate and are called Eight Precious Jewels Winter Melon Soup and Winter Soup With Special Delicacies. Ingredients can include shrimp, crab meat, abalone, pigeon eggs, water chestnuts , lotus seeds, and a number of other things.

The following recipe is a simple one made with Chinese black mushrooms and chicken.

The following recipe is a simple one made with Chinese Black mushrooms and chicken.

Winter Melon Soup With Chicken 4 dried black mushrooms 1 pound slice winter melon 1 chicken breast 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon light soy sauce 6 cups soup stock 1 slice ginger root, minced

Soak mushrooms in water 15 minutes, then discard water and slice mushrooms. Peel melon and cut into 1/4-inch slices. Cut chicken breast into bite-size pieces. Mix garlic, sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce and pour over chicken and set aside for 15 minutes.

Mix salt, 1 1/2 teaspoons soy sauce, and peanut oil and set aside. Heat stock to boiling, then add melon, mushrooms, and ginger and simmer 25 minutes. Add chicken mixture, stir well, then add salt and soy and peanut oil mixture. Cook until chicken is tender.

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