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Sunday, April 14, 2013

How to make a proper vegetarian soup stock

I am not a vegetarian but I have been trying my best to cut down my meat consumption. I decided to because of health and environmental reasons. Meat is fattier and no, it is not the good kind of fat. If you have already been eating less meat, eating animal fat now will likely give you digestive upset, so it is best to eventually cut it down to nil if you want to reduce consumption of unhealthy fat. Also, it costs the environment a lot to produce meat for our consumption, and I like vegetarian sources of protein anyway. For cooking, I don't need to worry about food contamination from not handling meat properly. So many rules for cooking meat safely, such as not cutting vegetables on the board that was used for cutting meat, making damn sure it is cooked fully. Plus it isn't difficult now to eat less meat because we have so many other protein and calcium choices.

So of late I did a search on making vegetarian soup. Soup is a healthy food choice because it is full of protein without having to eat so much as it is filling. Plus, I really love soup.

Alas the vegetarian soup solutions I found via Google were dismal. Firstly, It always seems to involve miso. I like miso soup, and have just ordered some miso too so I can cook with it. However I am Chinese, so I can't do without my Chinese soups too. Then the internet prescribes hot and sour soups and similar as my Chinese option. Must I? I don't always feel the need for it, and I am Teochew, our soup is clear, not starchy. And J doesn't dig spicy soup anyway. The third option was using coconut milk. I don't see how this is a good idea, perhaps an angmoh notion of Asian soup. The last option I found seems to produce a weak soup that resembles the kind you make with vegetable waste. So, I had to go do some soup inventing.

No I don't know cookery, and I don't follow recipes well. I cook by feeling, and the way I judge my cooking in terms of taste is whether it has all the notes, like in music where you need a variety and bass and treble. So, this is my disclaimer if you don't find my soup invention at all professional to read and follow.

There were a few vegetable soup preparation rules which I read online and followed. 1) Start with cold water. 2) Cut the vegetables in smaller pieces so that there is more surface area from which the flavours can escape. 3) Mushrooms are important, they are the secret ingredient to making flavourful vegetarian soup.

To me, Chinese soup must be herbal to be good. Chinese herbs add flavour of a different kind than vegetables which tend to be light and sweet. So this was one new rule I created for vegetarian Chinese soup stock. Herbs I chose include star anise, dioscorea, red dates and qi zi. You can also try others of course, such as apricot kernels. I do not know the health properties of these herbs. But you should know that star anise is a good addition to vegetarian soup stock. This is because unlike the other herbs, it is not that sweet. Vegetarian soup stock as I discovered tends to be sweeter than meat based soup. So star anise is a good herb to balance that flavour out.

The vegetables that are good for making vegetarian soup stock include cabbage, tomatoes, carrots. Tomatoes obviously make the soup more tangy, whereas cabbage and carrot make the soup sweet. Cut them into small pieces to make the soup more flavourful. I also like using pear or apple, the kind from China. It makes the soup cooling, has a unique flavour (also sweet) and it is delicious to eat when cooked. Other vegetables you can use are more the sort that you cook with, last, before your meal itself, so that it doesn't disappear into leafy bits with no edible girth.

Mushrooms, without a doubt, must be shitake. I buy fresh ones normally, because I also use them in salads and pasta dishes. You can use dried ones. Add mushrooms generously!

You also need the basic Chinese soup ingredients like ginger and garlic. Onion if you eat it too (I don't because it gives me gastric pain). I use whole garlic cloves smashed beforehand, with the skins on.

For seasonings, I added dark soya sauce, pepper, and a dash of salt. The salt is truly optional, but I like my soup less sweet and more savoury, so it had to be. I also added in a Japanese mix of red pepper, roasted sesame seeds, orange peel, chilli flakes, seaweed and ginger. You can buy this pepper mix from a Japanese supermarket like Sakuraya or the Japanese food aisle in Cold Storage. It is the kind you find at the seasonings tray in Jap restaurants next to the soy sauce and wasabi or ginger.  This could possibly be one of the best secret ingredients when it comes to soup seasoning.
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I reckon you can make your soup more savoury and spicy without using these seasonings, by adding preserved vegetables to it. Choices like sichuan vegetable, preserved mustard (kiam chye), tang chye, sour plum. I didn't want to go the preserved vegetable route so I didn't try, but you can if you want to! I guess the rule applies too for kimchi.

Put all the tiny pieces of chopped vegetable, garlic and ginger, herbs, mushrooms into a pot. Fill it with water. Boil over low heat for as long as you can. The tomatoes take a while to make the soup tangy, so if your soup isn't sourish yet, it isn't done. When I filled my pot with the ingredients and water it was full to the brim. The soup stock was about 60% of the pot eventually. As it boils the depth of the stock's flavour starts out light and sweet, then moves on to the richness of fish stock, then chicken, and finally the full rounded depth of your regular pork stock Chinese soup cooked by our parents.
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So now the soup stock is done! I hope you like it. What to eat it with?

You can make a no-carb soup meal by cooking the stock with tofu, enoki mushrooms, other green veges like spinach and sio pek chye, tomatoes and a little water. You can make a noodle soup too. If you want no-wheat noodles, try buckwheat noodles without wheat. Impossible to find in supermarkets though, so I get them from iHerb. You can also opt for gluten-free quinoa macaroni which will make your soup meal like the macaroni soup of our childhood. If you do want to try buying from iHerb, use my discount code AVA985 and get USD5-10 off your first purchase. If you are not avoiding carbs or are avoiding processed foods then you can eat your soup with rice of course. Add ingredients and the soup stock with some water and boil a nice hearty soup to eat with your rice (think yong tau fu soup you get from the food court).

I totally feel good about this vegetarian soup stock idea. It is as awesome as pork based soups, but it is healthier and lowers my carbon footprint.

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