In the days right after New Year's, I cooked a lot of West Lake Soup. My mother's kitchen was low on provisions after days of feasting. Gosh, it was a nice visit back home. I ate a lot pork bone soup and rice cakes. And, prawn chips every day, fried by my sainted mother. I never make them for myself. I save them for when I am home, and I can sit on the countertops and watch them puff in the hot oil. They still seem like magic to me every time. They still taste sublime.
After the holidays, what was left in the fridge was a little meat, a few eggs, some cilantro. That's all you need for this soup, which is hearty yet not heavy, and fragrant from the cupfuls of cilantro you add to the pot.
If you do not care for cilantro or you are one of those unfortunate people who perceive it as soap, well, you could substitute scallions, or watercress, or spinach. But I can't separate in my mind the appeal of West Lake Soup from its typically heavy dose of cilantro. It spreads, in pointellist fashion, into a broth thickened with cornstarch. Because of the cornstarch, the effect is as though the cilantro and meat and eggs are suspended, or floating, in nothingness. It is actually kind of beautiful, if you look deeply into the bowl.
The other day I made up yet another batch for breakfast, and sort of felt like I was eating oatmeal in Chinese soup form. It was so thick and soothing and hot. (Also, it only takes about fifteen minutes to make, less time that it'd take to cook steel-cut oatmeal.)
As it turns out, I have some pretty strong opinions about how the meat and eggs should be added. I like either ground pork or finely minced beef, but not ground beef. Why is this? I think it's because I don't want the soup to be too rich or meaty, and ground beef has a special heaviness to it. A lot of West Lake soup recipes call for ground meat of any kind, but not for me, no siree. Ground beef makes West Lake soup taste like a burger patty accidentally fell into the pot.
Whereas, ground pork is neutral enough such that you don't mind if it diffuses into the soup. And minced beef, while meaty, is self-contained. (For the same reason, ground chicken, I suppose, would suffice, though it would not be as fatty as ground pork. Fish fillets make an interesting variation as well.)
As for eggs, I want only the egg whites for their subtler flavor. Egg yolks enrich the broth, thus muddying up the brightness of the cilantro.
Oh yes, nothing shall come between me and my precious cilantro. Nothing!
About the author: Born in Shanghai and raised in New Mexico, Chichi Wang currently resides in Manhattan, where she divides her time between writing, cooking, and tracking down the best noodles in the city. Visit her blog, Mostly Tripe.