Why It Works
- Omitting egg yolks lightens the soup, allowing the cilantro to shine through.
- Thickening the broth with cornstarch keeps the ground meat, egg white, and cilantro evenly dispersed throughout the soup.
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 of 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, and 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, 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 a pointillist 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 15 minutes to make, less time than 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.
Ground pork is neutral enough 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!
8 ounces ground pork or minced beef fillet, or white fish fillets, such as cod or flounder, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
6 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken broth
5 tablespoons cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup water, to form a paste
4 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/4 cups finely chopped cilantro
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine meat with 1 teaspoon salt, soy sauce, and rice wine and set aside.
Combine broth and cornstarch paste in a 3-quart saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until broth comes to a boil and thickens slightly. Reduce heat to a bare simmer.
Add the marinated ground meat stirring to break it up as you add it (stir gently if using fish). When the meat or fish is just cooked (about 30 seconds for meat or 2 minutes for fish), add egg whites by drizzling them into the simmering broth and stirring the broth around slowly with a pair of chopsticks. When egg whites are solidified, about 30 seconds longer, turn off the heat. Add white pepper and more salt to taste. Add chopped cilantro and stir around to incorporate. Serve immediately.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 14g||18%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||25%|
|Total Carbohydrate 15g||5%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 1g|
|Vitamin C 2mg||9%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|