Soups in Chinese cooking are used very differently. At ordinary Chinese home meals, there is usually a common bowl of soup on the table of which you drink with your porcelain spoon any time of the meal, especially toward the end. Traditionally in China, since water is never and tea rarely served on the table, soup acts a drink.
In soups as well as other savory dishes, the Chinese cook uses MSG. Thi
s substance salt-like in appearance, has the virtue of bringing out and accentuating the flavor of any foods with which it is employed. In Chinese homes, where chicken figures frequently, chicken stock is, logically used for soups. But thrifty cooks buy giblets whenever possible, and at the same time, ask for the feet in which there is more goodness than one might think. Chicken gizzards, hearts, skinned feet and necks make beautifully clear stock. Chicken livers, which are parts of the giblets one buys, are never used in the stock but are reserved for inclusion in special dishes. Another to which we are more likely to resort, these days, is those very useful chicken cubes which are pretty generally available. In a Chinese restaurant, where they often boil or reheat pork, beef, chicken, duck, and various bones, there is a common soup stock, usually very dilute, that can be served with anything else and is called " high soup".
Soups may be divided into light soups and heavy soups. A light soup"s ingredients are more for flavorings than for eating. The excellence of Chinese light soups is due to the clear stock and the fresh flavor of the added ingredients which is achieved by the speed at which they are cooked. On the whole, Chinese restaurants do not make thin soups, probably because people are not prepared to pay just to drink a thin soup.
Heavy or thickened soups, a Cantonese specialty, on the other hand, are slow-cooked. A whole fresh chicken, a whole shad, a turtle, or the sea cucumber is usually used, and sometimese Chinese herbal medicines are added and simmered for several hours so to get a liquid that"s infused will all the goodness and essence of the ingredients. The two most famous Chinese soups of this type, shark"s fin
soup and bird"s nest soup appear to be thickened but the glutinous texture does, in neither case, result from the addition of cornstarch but from the two main ingredients, shark fin and bird"s nests which are simmered for many hours.
As the Chinese are the only people who can make sensible use of shark fins they are exported by Chinese traders to countries all over the world. The nests in making bird"s nest
soups are exclusively those of swiflets, the birds from the family of common swallow. These highly prized nests are built and clung to the ceiling of the caves as high as 70m by the birds mostly of seaweed that is mixed by their own saliva, making the process of harvesting an ordeal and expensive. Swiflets nests are mostly found on cliffs in areas along the Southern Chinese coast and South East Asia.
One thing you might observe is that Chinese beef or pork soups are free from strong unpleasant smell. This is because Chinese get rid of the blood when slaughtering the animal, which is the culprit of the odor. One trick to make great soups is to boil the beef/pork for a while and skim off fat and foam from the surfaces of soups. Repeat this a couple of times until none or little foam appears.
There"s a Chinese saying "making a pot of good soup can tie a man"s heart".