Monday, July 6, 2015

Winter Melon Soup with Tonkin Jasmine and Chinese Mushroom

July has barely just arrived, Hong Kong surely already feels like a raging furnace. The crippling heat is exacerbated only by a heavy cloak of subtropical humidity that spares no nook or cranny in its reach. At such times when mere breathing is sufficient to make one perspire, the last thing one would dream of is slurping a scalding hot bowl of soup.

Add flavor with dried mushrooms or seafood
Much to the contrary, generations of wisdom in Cantonese cuisine - backed by an all-encompassing, deep-seated "science" of internal balance and "hot versus cold" - have developed just the kind of soups that are believed to beat the heat with the right application of ingredients.

One such summer-specific "tonic" is the winter melon soup (an interesting irony, I reckon). White and mildly sweet in the flesh and dark green and waxy on the skin, the winter melon (冬瓜) - also known as wax gourd - typically grows to impressive sizes and often comes in pre-sliced wheels or otherwise dissected on the spot at markets. Winter melon soups are widely known to help dispel excessive heat and moisture accumulated in one's body, and are generally nourishing and cooling against summer's unforgiving climate.

A winter melon's delicate white flesh carries no distinct taste on its own, so other flavorful ingredients such as pork bones, dried Chinese mushrooms, dried shrimps and conpoy take up the role in flavoring.

Tonkin Jasmine: the "Night Fragrance"
If you are lucky, you might just run into packets of handpicked Tonkin jasmine flowers (夜香花) sold alongside winter melons which, to me, are like the cherry on the cake in this popular summer soup. Known as "Night Fragrance" in Chinese, these unassuming green and golden yellow blooms got its namesake for seducing passerbys with an even richer fragrance as night falls. During summer months, these inexpensive, modest flower buds silently make their way into local markets in small batches, often used in soups and favored for their delicate perfume and alleged ability to detoxify, maintain eye health, as well as eliminate excessive moisture. Not only do the flowers add a pleasing pop of jade, their crunch also gives a nice contrast to the soft, velvety texture that the winter melon takes on during cooking.

Under the weather? Beat the heat with this "cooling" winter melon soup!
To prepare...
1 1/2 lb winter melon
1 lb pork bones or lean pork
1 inch ginger, sliced
8 Chinese dried mushroom
4 dried scallops (optional), rinsed
8 cups water
A large handful of Tonkin jasmine
Salt, to taste (optional)

1. Soak dried mushrooms in water for a minimum of 20 minutes. Soak Tonkin jasmine in salted water for at least 15 minutes, rinse then set aside.

2. In a small pot, add pork, several slices of ginger and water. Bring to a rolling boil for 4-5 minutes, then turn heat off and discard scum and water. This is a crucial step to ensure a clear soup free from unsightly impurities and unpleasant odours from the pork.

3. Discard seeds and cut winter melon into roughly bite-sized chunks, keeping skin on for aesthetic reasons if desired. Cut mushrooms into thin slices. Place pork, winter melon, mushrooms, scallops (if using), and the rest of the sliced ginger into a large stock pot. Pour in 8 cups of water, cover, and bring to a boil. Continue to boil on medium heat for 15 minutes, then lower to a simmer for 1 hour.

4. When soup is almost done, tip in Tonkin jasmine and leave to simmer for one more minute before turning heat off. Serve piping hot in bowls and season with salt to taste. Happy Summer!!

For more traditional Chinese soup recipes, try:
Fish Maw, Monkey Head Mushroom, Whelk, and Lean Pork Soup

[Write to me under comments! Follow me on Instagram @alvinckl and check out my Facebook Fan Page!]