Chinese food for most people in the West is a concept perhaps most likely to conjure up images of stir fried meat and/or vegetables in a rich sauce, served with boiled or fried rice. Fortune cookies, spring rolls and even prawn crackers may also come to mind. It is probably not quite so likely that soup will be a foodstuff automatically considered but just as with almost any regional or national cuisine, it is possible to make many different types of soup using traditional Chinese ingredients. Along with the almost universally popular items that are chicken and mushrooms, this soup includes pak choi (sometimes called Chinese cabbage), a variation of cabbage which has soft green leaves as well as a lighter colored crispy stalk. It has a very subtle flavor, similar to aniseed. To provide even more authentic ethnic flavor, the soup is seasoned largely with Chinese five spice.
When making stock, the ingredients which can be made to accompany any meat element are almost infinitely variable and this factor can represent a great way of using up vegetables in your fridge which need utilized if they are not to go to waste. Onions of any type are good, bell peppers, chilies (not too hot, though), carrots and celery are all great stock enhancers and would be perfectly acceptable to be used in this instance.
Ingredients (Serves 6 to 8)
- 4 or 5 medium to large chicken thighs
- 1 small red onion
- 1 large, medium strength green chili
- 1 large, medium strength red chili
- 1 medium to large carrot
- ½ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- Cold water as required (minimum four pints)
- 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice
- 2 medium pak choi (around eight to nine inches tall)
- 4 medium white mushrooms
Lay the chicken thighs in the bottom of a large soup or stock pot. Peel and quarter the onion. Wash the carrot, cut off and discard the top and roughly chop. Top and roughly chop the chilies. Add all of them to the pot with the chicken thighs and season with the black peppercorns and some salt. Pour in enough cold water to ensure everything is comfortably covered but make sure you add at least four pints as you will later require three pints of strained stock and some of the liquid will be lost to evaporation as the stock simmers.
Put the pot on to a high heat until the water starts to simmer. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer for ten minutes. After this time, turn the heat off and leave the thighs to finish cooking in the residual heat for half an hour.
A large slotted spoon should then be used to lift the thighs to a deep plate. Cover and allow to cool enough that they can easily be handled. As a guideline, twenty to thirty minutes should easily be long enough.
Peel the skin from the chicken thighs and discard. Pluck the meat from the bones in small bite sized pieces and add to a dish with a lid. Put the lid on the dish and set aside until required.
If you wish, you could simply strain the stock at this stage and proceed with making the soup proper. I wanted a particularly rich stock for this soup, however, so what I did was return the thigh bones to the stock and bring the liquid back to a gentle simmer for one further hour. Make sure the pot is covered during this time to limit evaporation of the liquid. When the hour is up, turn off the heat and leave for about another hour to partly cool.
Remove the bigger solids from the part cooled stock with a slotted spoon and discard. Line a fine sieve with a couple of sheets of kitchen paper and suspend over a large bowl. Ladle the stock in to strain out the smaller impurities. You may need to change the paper once or even twice during straining as it becomes clogged with fat molecules.
If desired, you could refrigerate the strained stock and the chicken thighs meat overnight and prepare the soup itself the following day.
Measure out three pints of chicken stock and add to your washed and dried soup pot. Season with the teaspoon of Chinese five spice and stir well. Put the pot on to a high heat to bring the stock to a simmer.
While the stock is heating up, wash the pak choi very thoroughly in lukewarm water and shake dry. Slice about half an inch off the base in each case and throw these pieces away before slicing the remainder of the stalks to about a half inch thickness. Stop slicing when you reach the leaves as they will not be added to the soup until a little bit later.
Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp piece of kitchen paper and slice to about a quarter inch thickness. When the stock reaches a simmer, add the pak choi stalks and mushroom slices, stir through and simmer for an initial ten minutes.
Gather the pak choi leaves together and slice to a thickness of around half an inch.
When the initial ten minutes' simmering time is up, the pak choi leaves and the reserved chicken thigh meat should be added to the soup. Stir well and simmer for five more minutes only to ensure the chicken is fully reheated.
You should now taste the soup - being careful not to burn yourself - and adjust the seasoning if required with salt and pepper. Afford it one final stir before ladling in to bowls or deep plates to serve.