Everyday Food Guide Part 1: Soup
Welcome to Part 1 on a short series of common Chinese dishes. I’m using the menu from a chain restaurant for reference, so you’ll see it in each part of the series. The restaurant is all over Guiyang, and it’s called 身养煨汤. You can spot it by looking for the huge clay soup jars on either side of the doorway. This isn’t exactly an article on this specific restaurant, however. If you familiarize yourself with the dishes you like on this menu, you’ll be way better equipped to find those dishes at other places. There are plenty of similar restaurants with menus that are damned near identical, so you’ll always be able to order something that you know you like, even if your Chinese is a bit weak.
Chinese soups tend to be bone-broth plus a small amount of bone-in meat and a scattering of vegetables. The menu names are really just a description of the ingredients. If you know how to say a few things you like, you should be able to order no problem. I haven’t eaten all of these, so if you discover that there’s a mistranslation or that my description isn’t good, please comment below so I can fix it!
The first ten soups are almost all poultry-based, so let’s take a look at them together.
- Yěshēng bānjiū 野生斑鸠 wild turtledove
- Rénshēn yějī tāng 人参野鸡汤 wild chicken and ginseng soup
- Xīyángshēn yěyā tāng西洋参野鸭汤 Wild duck and american ginseng soup
- Shēnqǐ niúbiān tāng 参杞牛鞭汤 Ox penis and ginseng soup
- Tiānmá kōugē tāng 天麻芤鸽汤 Pigeon, Gastrodia tuber and scallion soup
- Tiānmá niǎojī tāng 天麻鸟鸡汤 Gastrodia tuber chicken soup
- Zhūdǔ niǎojī tāng 猪肚鸟鸡汤 Pork tripe chicken soup
- Zhúsūn niǎojī tāng 竹荪鸟鸡汤 Bamboo fungus chicken soup
- Bǎnlì tǔjī tāng 板栗土鸡汤 Chinese chestnut and free-range chicken soup
- Zhūdǔ tǔjī tāng 猪肚土鸡汤 Pork tripe and free-range chicken soup
The first one, I believe, is actually a whole little bird that fits in your soup bowl, but I haven’t personally tried it. As for number 4, I only just noticed it while translating the menu, so I’m unfortunately poorly-equipped to answer questions on that!
The next couple of soups both have something called a gastrodia tuber in them. It’s pretty similar to a potato, but has a slightly more crisp texture when cooked. For the soups where I’ve used the word free-range, I’m not totally certain about the translation. My dictionary also suggested home-kept as a description, but I am skeptical that either of those is completely accurate. It’s chicken, though. Definitely. Possibly with black skin, meat, and bones.
The next five soups are miscellaneous, with random ingredients like pork tripe, pig brain or foot, and peanuts. Those soups are as described. Number 14 refers to a slice of a long bone, like a pork femur/marrow bone.
- Tiānmá zhūnǎo tāng 天麻猪脑汤 Gastrodia tuber, pork tripe and brain soup
- Huángdòu zhūjiǎo tāng 黄豆猪脚汤 Soy bean and pig’s foot soup
- Huāshēng zhūjiǎo tāng 花生猪脚汤 Peanut and pig’s foot soup
- Huāshēng tǒngzigǔ tāng 花生筒子骨汤 Peanut and soup-bone soup
- Cháshùgū páigǔ tāng 茶树菇排骨汤 Tea shrub mushroom and pork rib soup
- Xiānggū páigǔ tāng 香菇排骨汤 Shiitake and pork rib soup
- Mòyú páigǔ tāng 墨鱼排骨汤 Cuttlefish and pork rib soup
- Liánǒu páigǔ tāng 莲藕排骨汤 Lotus root and pork rib soup
- Bǎnlì páigǔ tāng 板栗排骨汤 Chinese chestnut and pork rib soup
- Shānyao páigǔ tāng 山药排骨汤 Chinese yam and pork rib soup
- Dōngguā páigǔ tāng 冬瓜排骨汤 Wax gourd and pork rib soup
- Huāshēng páigǔ tāng 花生排骨汤 Peanut and pork rib soup
- Luóbo páigǔ tāng 萝卜排骨汤 Chinese radish and pork rib soup
- Yùmǐ páigǔ tāng 玉米排骨汤 Corn and pork rib soup
- Hǎidài páigǔ tāng 海带排骨汤 Seaweed and pork rib soup
From 15-25 are standard pork bone-broth soups. In general, these will have a simple bone-broth, a chunk or two of bone with a little bit of meat on it, as well as a vegetable or two. There are a few less-common vegetables in here, a few of them pictured below.
The tea shrub mushroom is one that’s usually dried and thrown in soups. I was unable to find them at my local market to photograph, but it’s a light brown color, and it’s sort of a long cylinder. Lotus root (1st photo below) is a starchy root vegetable that looks a lot like a potato, but has holes that run the length of the root. It retains its crispiness much more than a potato, and also has a pretty plain flavor. Chinese yams (2nd photo) are, again, a lot like a potato, but long and thin. Wax gourd is a huge light-green or nearly white gourd. The flavor is very subtle, but it adds a nice crunch to a soup. Finally, Chinese radish (3rd photo) is not sharp-flavored like the little red and white ones you may be familiar with. Instead, like most of the vegetables I’ve described here, it’s plain-tasting and noteworthy only for its crisp texture.
Before you head out to grab your soup, a few final pointers:
The soups are kept warm and stewing inside their little clay bowls within the large clay pots full of hot coals. Your soup will burn the ever-loving shit out of your mouth if you eat it right away.
Soup is not infinitely restocked through the day. You may discover that they only have a few soups left in the evening, limiting your choices.
All meat is bone-in, and is cut with a giant cleaver. Watch out for bone shards when you’re finishing the bowl!
Soups at this chain come in a small clay pot for one person, and usually people order them with another dish. They aren’t very filling or hearty soups. They’re just nice-tasting, and are often considered to have medicinal benefits. If you’ve got a cold or stomach flu, they’re great soups to keep your energy up.
Hopefully you’ve found this guide useful. Keep an eye out for Part 2, where I’ll lay out a list of common fried dishes!