Monday, February 9, 2015

Midwinter soup from Ningxia

The longest night of the year is a time for celebration in China. And that means that it’s a time for eating traditional foods. The Winter Solstice usually occurs on December 21 or 22, as its arrival is determined by the lunar calendar. My husband and his family always look forward to bowls of sweet sticky rice balls (tangyuan) that evening. However, depending upon where you are, this cold night might instead be a time to enjoy some Jiaozi or lamb soup. 

Ningxia puts a special spin on this custom, for the Winter Solstice means one thing and one thing only: a big bowl of spicy lamb soup with thick batons of mung bean jelly (or liangfen) floating in there among some mushrooms and tomatoes. And, I have to tell you, the liangfen is a touch of genius: the cubes turn into enticing, gently textured pillows that really stand out against the rich bits of lamb.
The liangfen starts out white

Some people also toss in chunks of potatoes or some Jiaozi, but since this is best served with bread, I find they turn this into a bit of a carb overload. Just have the jelly ready to go before you start this recipe, and this will come together instantly.

Ningxia Midwinter Soup
Níngxià yángròu fěntāng  寧夏羊肉粉湯
The Northwest
Serves 2 as a main meal

3 or more ounces boneless lamb or goat meat
1 teaspoon regular soy sauce
½ teaspoon dark soy sauce
Making this jelly is a snap
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons shredded fresh ginger
3 green onions, trimmed and julienned, whites and greens kept separate
1 teaspoon coarse chili powder, or less if you are chili-adverse
½ teaspoon five-spice powder 
4 black mushrooms, fresh or dried and plumped up, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 whole canned Roma tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch slices
2 teaspoons black vinegar, or to taste
4 cups unsalted mushroom stock or water
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
I recipe for Mung Bean Jelly, through Step 2

To serve:
Handful of cilantro
Marinate the meat -- I used goat
Grilled Breads, or any other raised baked breads from this region

1. Cut the lamb into ¼-inch strips. Place them in a small work bowl and toss with both kinds of soy sauce. While this is marinating, prepare the rest of the ingredients. If you have any bones or fat on the meat, consider tossing this into the stock for extra flavor; remove them before you pour the stock into the vegetables.

2. Set a wok over medium-high heat and add the oil when it is hot. Swirl it around and add the ginger and onion whites. As soon as they are fragrant, sprinkle in the lamb and marinade, and toss these around until the lamb is barely done. Scoop this out into a clean work bowl, but drain the oil back into the wok.

Mushrooms with spices
3. Over medium heat, add the chili powder and five-spice powder to the oil and swirl them around before raising the heat to medium-high and adding the mushrooms. Toss these quickly to release their fragrance, and then add the tomatoes and vinegar. Pour in the stock or water and bring this to a boil before lower the heat to a simmer. The soup can be made ahead up to this point.

4. Cut the mung bean jelly into fat batons around ¾-inch wide and an inch or so long, or whatever size you like. Slide these into the soup and simmer them gently for around 10 minutes to heat through; they will turn from an opaque white to almost translucent. Add the lamb, then taste and adjust the seasoning with whatever you like. Ladle the soup into large bowls, top with the finely chopped onion greens and coarsely chopped cilantro, and serve with the bread, which may be torn into smallish pieces and tossed into the soup.


  1. what type of chili powder? if you buy chili powder at an American supermarket it is usually a mix of chills and other spices (sometimes not fitting in the Chinese set of spices)

    1. As always with Chinese recipes, this is pure ground chilies with nothing else added. (Korean markets have the best selections.) It's funny, but Mexican chili powder actually might work well here, as it's basically chilies, cumin, and garlic!