Watercress soup or 西洋菜汤 (xi yang cai tang)is very well-known in Singapore. This article contains preparation tips and some recipes.
The main ingredient in this beloved soup is the watercress. It is called 西洋菜 (xi yang cai) in Mandarin and it literally means "western vegetable". Unlike the watercress used in English creamy watercress soup which has thick roundish shiny leaves, this variety has long tender stems. Along the stems are small outshoots with small oval leaves. The official Chinese name is 豆瓣菜 (dou ban cai). So, why in the world is it called western vegetable?
Here's a picture of the watercress I bought at the wet market. Photo by Phoebe Lim
There are 2 stories about how the watercress came to be known as the "western vegetable" 西洋菜 (xi yang cai).
Around the 1930s, an overseas Chinese who migrated to Portugal returned to Guangzhou to visit his relatives. He brought some watercress seeds with him. He started growing them in Guangzhou and also gave some seeds to people in Macau and Hong Kong. It became very popular and because it came from a western country, it was called the "western vegetable".
Legend has it that a Portuguese sailor survived a serious illness, probably tuberculosis. He wasn't expected to survive but he did. He attributed his survival to the watercress that he ate during his illness. Years later, he relocated to Macau and brought the seeds to grow there. It become popular as it grows well and have health benefits. Since it was brought over from a western country by a western, the watercress was fondly called the "western vegetable".
What do you think? Which story sounds more plausible?
Benefits of Watercress
Regardless how the vegetable came to China, it now has a firm position in Asian cuisine. The Cantonese loved it. And so do a lot of people in Southeast Asia.
It is considered a superfood. It is supposed to have very high SOD levels which means it is high in anti-oxidants. It is believed to be cooling and good for the lungs. Watercress is also high in Vitamin C, vegetable protein, insoluble fibre, calcium, and potassium. It can be simmered until it is very soft, so it is good for old folks who need to consume more calcium to prevent osteoporosis.
According to traditional chinese medicine, people who have a weak constituency may experience diarrhea when they eat watercress. To prevent this, add red dates, dried longan and ginger to make the dish warmer. Pregnant women should avoid this.
How to Prepare Watercress
Watercress is usually sold without the roots. But if yours came with them, cut them off first. They are also sold in bundles so they tend to clump together. Take a bit of time to separate them.
The stems are quite short so they seldom need to be cut further because once they are cooked down, they are very soft. But if you are serving this to old folks or children, cut them into shorter sections. Wash them well in a colander. Remove leaves or stems that have wilted.
Watercress is rarely eaten raw in Asia. The fragrance of the vegetable really comes through when it is cooked well. It is quite distinct, nobody will mistake it for something else.
As mentioned, the Cantonese love to use it in soup. It can be paired with pork, chicken, duck and fish. Chinese herbs like red dates, dried longan and goji berries are frequently added to balance the cooling effect of the soup. They are usually simmered until mushy and dark.
The vegetable has slowly travelled up north. I noticed the recommendation not to cook it for too long. Another regional difference creeping in.
Although rare, watercress can also be stir-fried and make into sweet watercress tea.
1. Watercress soup with red dates
This soup is a broth that has been simmered for a few hours to produce a really sweet soup. Chinese watercress, like the round cabbage, is better when really well-cooked. Or it could be my preference for really soft watercress in soup.
The Buddha's fruit or 罗汉果 (luo han guo) is a key ingredient in a popular Chinese herbal tea 凉茶 (liang cha) known for its cooling properties. It should be available in asian grocery stores in dried form.
This is a sweet soup, a sort of cooling herbal tea.
600g Chinese watercress
2 litres soup stock
1/2 buddha's fruit
Directions (Slow cooker)
Wash the watercress thoroughly
Cut into shorter sections
Bring 2000ml soup stock to a boil in the slow cooker (make sure the slow cooker is able to handle 2 litres of liquid to prevent boil-over)
Add the watercress and buddha's fruit and cook on high for 4 hours
Strain the soup
Sweeten with a little sugar or honey (optional)
You can also store this in the refrigerator and enjoy it cold.