Chinese pork soup isn't a homogeneous food type. Different pork cuts create totally different soup dishes.
Pork ribs and pork bones are used in simmered soups while pork loin, pork liver and ground pork are seen in quick soups and congee. Pork belly, pig skin (<i>yes, pig skin, ears, stomach and intestines</i>), knuckle or shank, and pork trotters are used in stews and braises.
Different cuts of the pig. Photo by Jameson Fink
Let us go through a few of these in more detail.
1. Ground Pork
Photo by John Giacomoni
Mincing or grounding pork is one of the most common and most versatile way to prepare pork in Chinese cooking. With a little seasoning, it can be used in pork soups, congee, stir-fries, stuffed food and steamed dishes.
It can be cooked as it is or shaped into meatballs or any shape you fancy by using a little cornstarch or egg to combine the ingredients. It can also be mixed with other ingredients to become filling for wontons, dumplings, pancakes, vegetables and etc.
In theory, any part of the pig can be minced or ground but premium ground pork uses premium meat cuts. Using "dubious" parts of the pig to make ground pork can affect how the minced pork will feel and taste.
Ground pork used to be made from fresh pork belly which contain some fat. I used to accompany my late paternal grandmother to the wet market where she will choose a nice fresh piece of pork belly and instruct the butcher to ground it up for us. This way, we know exactly which part of the pig our ground pork is made from. We used to own a meat grinder too. It is all metal with a funnel and a spiral cutter. I wonder what happened to it?
I think getting ground pork from a butcher is safer than buying pre-packed ground pork from the supermarket. Alas! Who has time to go to the wet market at 6.00am in the morning. Just make sure the colour of the ground pork is pink and there are no discolouration, brownish liquid or funny smell.
1. Meatball soup with winter melon and crab meat
This meatball soup is a quick boiling soup. To lower the oiliness of the soup, skip the garlic browning part. Just boil the chicken stock and add the garlic.
The lemongrass adds a nice fragrant and tangy flavor. You can add a little cornstarch solution at the end before serving if you like a smoother texture.
1 pound lean ground pork
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tsp cornstarch
5 tbsp canola oil
4 cup chopped garlic
2.5 quart chicken stock
5 tbsp fish sauce
2 tsp sugar
1 stalk lemongrass
1 pound winter melon
6 crab claws
chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Cut the winter melon into bite-sized chunks and remove all the seeds
Season the ground pork with salt and pepper
Add the cornstarch and mix well
Pick a tablespoon-ful of ground pork and roll them into balls with the palms of your hand
Place the meatballs aside for use later
Heat the oil in a deep pot
Add the chopped garlic and fry till golden brown on medium heat
Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil
Reduce heat to a simmer and add the fish sauce, sugar, lemongrass and winter melon
Cook until the winter melon turns translucent
Add the meatballs and crab claws
Simmer for 10-15 minutes until the meat balls float to the surface
Remove from heat and serve with chopped cilantro as garnish
Freezing ground pork
One of the things that make ground pork popular among Chinese mothers is it freezes well.
Grandma always have some ground pork stashed in the freezer which makes it very convenient to make meatball soup or ground pork rice porridge on a whim. She buys about 1 kg of fresh ground pork from the market. She then separates them into 5 small portions of about 200g each and freezes each separately using small plastic storage boxes. It can be 4 small portions of 250g each or 2 medium portions of 500g each. Get the idea?
I prefer using cling wrap instead of plastic boxes because I can shape them into thin slabs for easy storing and thawing. I lay the cling wrap on the chopping board, spread the meat thinly on top and fold the cling wrap over. Pat dry and stack them neatly on top of each other in the freezer. Meat bricks ha!
To thaw, just soak the box or cling wrap parcel in warm water until everything softens. I know from personal experience that thin slabs are easier to thaw than the lump in the storage boxes. Do use up the meat after thawing. Do not re-freeze.
2. Pork Slices
Any cuts, especially those not near any major bones or cartilage can be thinly sliced across the grain and used in quick boiling pork soups. Thinly sliced pork belly are commonly seen in hot pots.
Pork legs and fillets are leaner. To ensure tender juicy pork slices, use the back of the knife, a meat mallet or a rolling pin and pound the meat slices a bit to loosen the muscle fibre. Marinate with seasonings and seal in the juices with a dash of cornstarch or arrowroot.Read more about cornstarch and other types of thickeners.
Try the following 2 simple recipes with only a few ingredients.
2. Lean pork soup with water melon peel
This is a pork soup using water melon peel, also known as water melon rind. It is a great treat in summer.
Most people know that water melon flesh is juicy, sweet, and full of iron and vitamin C. We chomped away at the flesh and throw away the seeds and rind. Few know that the peel is considered to have medicinal properties.
The tart white rind is believed to contain citruline. This is an amino acid that helps dilate blood vessels and improve blood circulation. In traditional Chinese medicine, dried water melon rind has been prescribed for patients with kidney problems, anaemia, dry throat, chapped lips, and bladder inflammation.
The next time you eat thirst-quenching water melon, do not throw away the water melon peel. Use it to cook a quick Chinese soup.
300g water melon skin
500ml soup stock
150g lean pork
Remove any red flesh from the water melon peel
Peel the outer tougher part of the peel, leaving only the green inner part
Cut into bite-sized pieces
Cut lean pork into thin slices and pound each piece lightly with a meat mallet or back of the knife to tenderize them
Marinate lightly with soy sauce and a little cornstarch
Bring 500 ml soup stock to a boil
Add the water melon peel pieces and lean pork slices
Cook over high heat for 10 minutes
Season with a bit of salt
3. Mango soup with lean pork
A mango recipe with lean pork equals a Chinese summer soup? Bet you didn't know that mangoes can be used in soups.
Mango is considered a cooling food and has been used to relieve coughing caused by heaty lungs. The flesh of a very ripe mango can also relieve inflammation and scalding.
This mango soup is great for a cough caused by the summer heat.
4 half-ripe mangoes
250g lean pork
10 cups of water
Parboil the lean pork in boiling water for about 5 minutes
Remove the lean pork and rinse
Wash the mangos
Halve the mangoes
Place the lean pork and mangoes in a pot and add 10 cups of water
Bring the pot to a boil and lower the heat to a simmer
Simmer for 2 hours
Season with salt before serving
4. Egg drop soup with button mushrooms and pork
An egg drop soup that is not thickened. A quick soup using store-bought stock cubes.
Marinating the pork slices with cornstarch is an important step because it imparts a thin smooth coating to the pork.
100g pork slices
200g button mushrooms
One quarter section carrot
1 small stalk parsley
1 chicken stock cube
Clean the mushrooms and slice thinly
Peel the carrot and slice thinly
Clean the celery and cut into thin sections
Marinate the pork slices with some salt and cornstarch
Bring 500ml water to a boil, add the chicken stock cube and stir to dissolve
Add the mushroom and carrot slices and cook for about 2 minutes
Add the pork slices and stir to break up the pieces
Beat the egg
When the pork slices turn pale, add the parsley
Drop the egg into the soup, sprinkle sesame seed oil
5. Salted vegetable soup with pork slices
A visitor once asked me whether I have a recipe for pork and pickled cabbage soup. She ate it at some downtown chinese restaurants in NYC. My first thought was: Cantonese (Guang dong) or Szechwan (Si chuan)?
Pickled cabbage can mean different things to different chinese dialect groups. The Cantonese has a soup dish called harm choy tong which means salted vegetable soup. The key ingredient is a type of pickled mustard cabbage.
The Szechwan has a soup dish called 榨菜汤 (zha cai tang) which means pressed vegetable soup. The key ingredient is zha cai, also a type of pickled mustard green but the stem of this green vegetable is knobbly and shaped more like a fist.
Both types of pickled vegetables can have salty, sourish or spicy varieties. So, a tough question indeed. Fortunately, the recipe below can be used with both types of pickled vegetables.
Now, the question is which is which at the Asian grocery shops. Like I say, the Szechwan one is a knobbly fist-shaped vegetable. It offers a more robust taste and is crunchier than its cantonese counterpart.
Buy pickled chinese vegetables in large packets if you intend to make soups. Those sold in small jars are usually for cold side dishes and can be served straight out of the jars.
As for the tomato, remove the skin by scoring the skin and blanching it in hot water. The skin will curl back from the flesh making it easier to remove. If you have soft tofu leftovers lying around in the fridge, add them into your salted vegetable soup.
300g lean pork
300g salted vegetable or pickled mustard green
3 stalk of spring onion
1 litre water or soup stock
1 tsp salt
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp cooking wine
Dash of sesame seed oil
Dash of pepper
1 tbsp cornstarch
Slice the lean pork thinly across the grain
Marinate the pork with a dash of soy sauce and sesame seed oil
Add the cornstarch and mix well
Wash and soak the salted vegetable for about 10 minutes
Cut the salted vegetable into bite-sized pieces or thin slices for the Szechwan variety
Wash and cut the tomato into thin quarters
Bring a pot of water to the boil
Add the salted vegetable and spring onions and tomato
Bring the water back to a boil
Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 to 30 minutes
Add the marinated pork
Season the soup with the salt, cooking wine, and pepper
Taste the soup before adding the salt as the salted vegetable is salty too
3. Pork ribs
2 kgs of pork spare ribs. Photo by Kent Wang
Pork ribs is very popular for simmering pork soups. The ribs imparts a much stronger flavour to the pork soup than just the meat.
Bone marrow contains high levels of protein and iron while the bone itself has calcium. Suitable boiling causes the calcium to "migrate" to the soup.
Pork ribs can be divided into 2 types: prime ribs and spare ribs. The price conscious ones (like me) will use spare ribs to simmer soup. Prime ribs are more expensive and are used mainly for main meat dishes like sweet and sour pork ribs.
Preparation is easy. Just parboil the ribs before using.
6. Pork soup with apples and pears
This pork soup recipe features fresh apples and pears. It is a sweet and clear soup offering a nice crunch with the fresh fruits.
Apricot seeds are kernels of a Mongolian apricot. There are 2 varieties: sweet and bitter. Both are highly regarded as herbs for respiratory problems. They feature frequently in soups for colds as they have been observed to remedy severe colds, asthma, rheumatism, swollen feet and constipation.
300g spare ribs
25g sweet and bitter apricot seeds 南北杏 (nan bei xing)
25g red dates
2 slices ginger
3 litre water
Salt to taste
Wash the apples and pears well
Slice and core them but do not peel
Parboil the spare ribs for about 2 minutes
Remove, drain and rinse
Place ginger, spare ribs, apples and pears, apricot seeds, red dates and water in a soup pot
Pork ribs have considerably less calories than other pork cuts. It is very suitable for making soups that are flavorsome but not oily. When slow cooked, the calcium in the bones seeped into the soup infusing it with a nice smooth and slightly thickened texture. Very nutritious too.
Brown rice is more nutritious than polished white rice but it is harder to cook. Soaking it prior to cooking will shorten cooking time. It is also possible to mix brown rice and white rice.
I would use the slow cooker or a good rice cooker to cook this congee.
300g pork ribs
150g brown rice
600ml bone stock
1 tbsp goji berries
Salt and pepper
Sesame seed oil
Wash the brown rice and soak in warm water for 1 hour
Clean the pork ribs and parboil for 2 minutes
In a big pot, add the astragalus, brown rice, pork ribs, goji berries and stock
Bring everything to a boil before lowering to a simmer
When the congee is done, season to taste
Garnish with chopped coriander before serving
8. Pork soup with red dates and chinese yam
I find this pork soup a very satisfying dish especially for days when I worked very hard. It is very nice to come home to a bowl of piping hot pork soup with Chinese yam, goji berries and red dates.
If you stay on your own, prepare the ingredients in the morning and leave everything to slow cook in a slow cooker before leaving for work. When you come back tired from work, your soup will be waiting for you. Happiness!
75g fresh chinese yam
8 red dates
1 tbsp goji berries
300g pork ribs
3 pieces ginger
1 litre water
1 tbsp mirin
Peel the chinese yam and cut pieces
Clean the pork ribs and parboil for 2 minutes
Place the red dates, pork ribs, ginger and water into a big pot
Bring everything to a boil
Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes
Add the chinese yam and seasonings
Simmer for another 20 minutes
4. Pork bones
Photo by Graham Holliday
I have made a distinction here between pork ribs and pork bones. Pork bones are usually from the limbs while pork ribs, as the name suggests, are from the rib cage. Limb bones are larger and contain more marrow but less meat. Therefore they are better for making soup stocks. The spine can also be categorized as bones but I am not in favour of using the spinal bones to make pork soup. There are a lot of spinal matter around that region. Limbs are preferred.
It is important to parboil the pork ribs and pork bones before use.