The art of cooking was taken so seriously in earliest Chinese society that cooking and seasoning techniques were used as metaphors for good government. Françoise Sabban notes that in certain contexts, the expression tiao-geng, or "seasoning the soup," could be translated as "to be minister of state."

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Reader Mary Jacobs reports on UCOs in Chinese soup:
"I have a Chinese-American friend whose father had a Chinese restaurant. Every year he hosted a New Year's dinner for the local Chinese-American community. One year my friend invited me. The food was delicious, but it was definitely not the same stuff you get at a typical Chinese restaurant in America. The first course was a soup with some strange things floating around in it. I asked my friend, Li Jean, what it was; all she would say was "Unidentified Chinese Objects." She assured me I didn't WANT to know. Oh well, I ate it anyway, and it was delicious!"

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Soup Customs in China

Soup is not regarded in China as a meal or as an occasional comfort food, as is true in many cultures. Rather, as in France, soup plays a formal, distinctive, and variable role in every meal but breakfast...but it is further used medicinally to doctor the ill, depending on one's yin-yang balance.

Li Yü, Ch'ing dynasty poet and essayist, said this about soup:

"As long as there is rice, there should be soup. The relationship between soup and rice is like that between water and a boat. When a boat is stranded on a sandy bank only water can wash it back to the river; rice goes down better with soup. I would go so far as to say that it would be better to go without all main dishes that to have no soup."

Soups for everyday meals are often simple broths made from meat bones and vegetables or pickles. Designed to help one digest food, these are often served with the meal (acting as the beverage) or toward the end of the meal, even poured over that customary last bowl of rice. They're never served first--because you'd be filled up too fast--and they're always served by bringing small bowls of it to the table.

By contrast, if the soup is slightly thickened (usually with cornstarch) and contains some fine ingredients--like hot and sour soup--it will be served as a course in itself toward the beginning of the meal. And it's brought to the table in a big bowl--ladled out to everyone there--so you know for sure it's a main course. It is specifically designed to stimulate the appetite for the rest of the meal.

However, these thickened soups can also aspire higher--leaping over everyday status to banquet status to the degree that they contain precious foods. Soups that feature the precious shark's fin or bird nest, for example, will be moved to the middle of the meal, symbolizing their role as centerpiece of the meal. Otherwise, light soups will be served in small cups throughout the banquet as palate cleansers between courses and to signify the end of a series of courses.

And what about soup's role as a tonic? These soups, which usually combine long-simmered foods and medicinal herbs, are designed to balance the yin (cooling) and yang (heating) forces that affect the body. Thus a Chinese grandmother might demand to look into the eyes and at the tongue of her grandson to deduce his nature that day: if he was "wet and cold," she'd create a yang soup, such as chrysanthmum flowers and sugar to soothe and warm him. If he was "hot," she'd give him a yin soup, such as winter melon soup--or a sweet dessert soup of poached pears, honey, and lemon balm to cool and cleanse him.

All foods, in fact, are classified according to their yin/yang properties: For example, oranges, winter melon, pork, and dried figs are YIN--meaning they can reduce inflammation and help lower fevers. Whereas ginseng, quail, dried longans fruit, azuki beans, and medicinal roots and berries are YANG--meaning they can promote blood formation and circulation and improve vitality. A word to the wise--the elderly should beware yin foods...and embrace yang ones.

Tonic soups include:

  • Peanut soup (fa sung woo), for longevity.
  • Soup made from the roots of peanuts is given to pubescent boys to make them grow tall.
  • Sweet potato and lotus seed soup (fan shu leen zee tong), which helps constipation and removes toxins from the body.
  • Walnut soup (hup tul woo), a snack and dessert soup using, is said to nourish the brain and promote long life. It contains toasted walnuts (brain shaped), rice flour, and brown candy.
  • Green mung bean soup (look dul sah) is a tonic for acne, rash, and other skin problems--it cools the body of heat inflammations and is good in the summer.
  • Sweetened red bean soup (hoong dul sah) for wintertime to warm the body.
  • Chayote carrot soup (hup cheung qwa hoong law bock tong) is good for the elderly because it cleanses toxins but without cooling the body.

Finally, sweet soups serve as Chinese desserts--including not only yin poached pears, honey, and lemon balm, but also azuki bean soup, almond puree soup, tapioca in coconut milk soup, and steamed peaches and honey date soup.