"Have you drunk your soup yet?" is something my mother has asked me since I was old enough to use a spoon. The same is probably true of many other Asian mums around the world.
Growing up, I hated drinking the concoctions that she would have spent hours chopping, seasoning, and simmering over the stove. The lovingly prepared lotus root broth with peanuts or apple and pear herbal soup would often end up tipped into plant pots when no one was looking.
What my picky younger self failed to realise, however, is that in Chinese cuisine, soup is so much more than just a bowl of liquid. From asthma-curing chicken and ginseng soup to the soothing watercress broth sai yeung choy tong and soups made from rare edible birds' nests that are said to improve the skin, Chinese cooks have been using soup as medicine for centuries.
"Soup has played a major part in Chinese cuisine and culture, prepared not only for taste, but for nutritional and health benefits," explains David James Lee, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner based in Derbyshire. "Choosing and combining natural ingredients with Chinese herbs was thought to be not only a preventative exercise, but also a powerful curative medicine that would have a direct affect on your current health and wellbeing."
Traditional Chinese soups are made from fresh vegetables, lean meat, and fish and flavoured with roots like ginger and ginseng, or sometimes more unusual ingredients such as cloud ear fungus and Chinese yams. Some soups are believed to detoxify; others reduce blood pressure or nourish the organs. Drinking the right Chinese soup is also thought to restore the balance of yin and yang in the body.
"Chinese medicine is based on the theory of yin and yang balance, meaning that whenever your body goes through some sort of illness, it's usually an imbalance within the body," says Dr. Ji Sang, Chinese herbal doctor at London's Chinese Medical Centre. "Chinese herbal therapies are all about restoring the yin and yang balance whenever the body is unwell."
Asian broths and soups are classified as either hot or cooling, and a patient (or soup-phobic teenage daughter) will be prescribed one depending on their ailment.
"Drinking broths and soups can be used to treat the whole body, rather than just the symptoms," Sang adds.
To find out how these soups come together in the kitchen, I visit Chao Zhang, owner of Xi'an Impression and Sichuan Folk in London. Both restaurants specialise in the cuisine of China's Shaanxi Province, including several soup dishes.
"A lot of broths and soups that we feature on our menu generally start with different fresh stocks either chicken, pork, or vegetable as a base," says Zhang. "Our chefs come in hours before service to start prepping in advance, as we use a lot of these bone and vegetable broths to provide a main base in a lot of our soups, sauces, and other dishes."
Slow-cooking the broths give the flavours time to marinate and develop. Zhang shows me to the kitchen at Sichuan Folk, where chefs are preparing a sliced pork broth and a traditional hot and sour soup. Spoons in hand, we start sharing memories of soup-pushing mothers.
"I too have a mother who would pester me into drinking a lot of broths," Zhang laughs. "My favourite soups growing up were egg and tomato, seaweed, lamb, and even offal soups, as Sichuan province is known to be quite meaty, the meatiness combined in soups adds a richer and dense texture."
Zhang's pork soup has an indulgently dense texture and as I slurp down the last of the warming broth, I certainly need no maternal encouragement to finish the whole bowl.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.