Monday, January 25, 2016

January soup for the stomach and the soul

Hubei is so speckled with still bodies of water that it is known as "the land of fish and rice." And the name is apt, for fishing is a major part of Hubei culture and fish is featured at almost every meal. But another important resource is harvested in those ponds, as well: lotuses.

Pink lotus blossoms cover the lakes and ponds of Hubei in high summer. Their leaves are gathered around this time and used as scented wrappers for pork and chicken or desserts. Also harvested are the heavy green pods filled with ivory seeds that can be found inside the flowers. These pods are soft and delicate when fresh and starchy when dried. The greatest harvest of all, though, happens after the leaves have died and the cold winds send the plants into hibernation. This is when the long, white rhizomes are dug up.

Harvesting these rhizomes is backbreaking work. The roots are hidden under many feet of thick cold, gray mud, and the workers have to gently feel around with their feet for the roots, and then pull them out without breaking them. The most prized rhizomes are the fat, long, juicy specimens that taste just like a meaty vegetable. They are delicious in this hearty soup, which is best served in late autumn or winter, the peak of the lotus root season.

Lotus, Chinese yam, & wolfberries

So, only go shopping for lotus roots when it's cold out, as that is when these will be fresh and juicy. Look for fat rhizomes 2 to 3 inches wide with as little bruising as possible. They should feel heavy, which tells you that they were harvested recently. Chinese markets will often sell these in long, unbroken lengths of three or four rhizomes, and if I see them proudly displayed that way, I can never resist, because this shows real pride in their produce.

Feel the roots all over for signs of squishiness, which signifies rot. You want these rock hard, and if you gently rap on them with your knuckles, you should be rewarded with a satisfying thump. Store them in plastic bags in the fridge with a paper towel if they are at all wet, and that will help preserve their quality. Remove the skins with a potato peeler, pare off the hard nubbins on both ends, and then clean out the long holes, using a chopstick to dislodge any dirt. However, if you did your job well and selected prime lotus roots, you probably won't find any mud squirreled away in there. 

Get plump specimens for the pot

In this version I’ve added another cold weather favorite, Chinese yams, or shānyào 山藥. These are weirdly wonderful vegetables that are delicious raw, when they are crisp and sweet. They're also great cooked, which turns them soft and more vegetal. The Chinese revere them as highly nutritious any way they are prepared, and they are touted as having anti-inflammatory properties, good for the skin, and so forth. They’re low in starch and sugar, too, which makes them great for folks on diets.

Me, I just like them, and so into the pot they go.

Lotus root, Chinese yam and pork rib soup

Lián’ŏu shānyào páigŭ tāng  蓮藕山藥排骨湯
Serves 4 to 6 generously

About 1 pound pork back ribs or pork neck 

2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 inches fresh ginger
3 or 4 green onions, trimmed
2 quarts boiling water, plus more as needed
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine, divided
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 hefty lotus root (around one pound, about 6 x 3 inches)
1 (one pound or so, about 6 x 2 inches) Chinese yam
¼ cup wolfberries (aka gouqi or goji berries), optional
Fry the riblets

1. Start this recipe at least a day before you want to serve it. Have your butcher slice the ribs or neck into 1-inch pieces. Pat the meat dry. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high until it starts to smoke, and use tongs to lower the meat into the hot fat. Brown the meat on all sides and then remove them to a large (4 quart or so) sandpot or stockpot.

2. Brown the ginger in the wok and then add it to the pork. Add the green onions (leave them whole) and cover the ribs with the boiling water. Pour in ¼ cup rice wine before bringing the pot to a full boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the pork uncovered for around an hour, or until the meat is tender. Let the pot come to room temperature, and then keep it in a cool place overnight.

Simmer the soup for 30 minutes

3. The next day, skim off the fat, if you like, and discard the limp cooked onions. Add more boiling water to the pot to bring it up to its original volume, heat the soup to a boil, add the salt, pepper, and sugar, and adjust the seasoning as desired.

4. Peel the lotus root and roll cut (see Tip) it into pieces about an inch wide. If you see any mud at all inside there, wash it off carefully. Peel the Chinese yam and cut it into pieces about the same size as the lotus root chunks. Add the lotus root, Chinese yam, and optional wolfberries to the soup, and bring it to a boil again before lowering the heat to a simmer. Cook the lotus roots until tender, about half an hour. Stir in the 2 tablespoons rice wine and a bit more boiling water, if desired. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Portion out the soup into large individual bowls and serve hot.


Hard vegetables like carrots and lotus roots are often roll-cut, which gives them a nice range of textures in one bite: soft along the edges, but firm in the center. To do this, hold one end of the vegetable firmly against your cutting board and use this same hand to rotate it as you slice it on an angle with the other hand. What you are aiming for here are slightly triangular wedges. There's no need for accuracy, so just practice away until you get the hang of it. 

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