Taiwanese pork soup

Many popular Chinese dishes these days may seem strange, making you wonder what the cook was thinking when he or she made up the dish. Chicken feet, anyone? Well, cooking is an art to make food more delicious to the palate, but also a magic to make something out of nothing. When resources were scarce, clever tricks were invented to make scraps of leftover meat and organs edible, stretch the minimal amount of ingredients into a fulfilling meal. This requires lots of time and labor, and most importantly brain power, to change the texture of raw ingredients, to impart flavors, and to add fillers that actually don't taste like so.

The example of chicken feet requires changing the texture (skin) and imparting colors and flavors to this scrap of meat that would normally be trashed. Sausage is another example. Whatever leftover pieces of meat are ground down and spiced up. Meat that had lots of chewy connective tissue is cut into little pieces so that eating them is no longer painful on the jaw. Funny tastes of organs are diluted by vast amount of other ground meat and strong seasoning. The most famous example would be Bouillabaisse, the French fish stew originally made with leftover pieces of fish. Without the challenge of having to save every little bit of resources, cooks could not have dreamed up all these dishes...

...which brings me to this particular blog entry -- Taiwanese pork soup (肉羹). This is a most peculiar dish, my friend John commented. Chopped up meat mixed with fish paste? Thickened soup with eggs? Consider this: meat was still a luxury item back then. A typical family did not eat much meat unless it is a festive occasion. To stretch limited means, leftover fish was ground into paste with potato starch and mixed with pork to increase the volume. Eggs were added to the soup for more nutritional values. And soup was thickened to add the illusion of body. Clever? yes. Strange? Yes. Tasty? Definitely yes.

Recipe: Taiwanese pork soup (肉羹)

300 gram pork (lean, not a tough cut) cut into small strips about 2 inches long
150 gram fish paste
1 clove of garlic, passed through garlic press
1 egg
2 Tbsp chopped cilantro
4 cups chicken stock or broth
3 Tbsp corn starch and more if necessary
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
1 cup sliced bamboo shoots
1/2 cup sliced shitake mushroom
White pepper

1. Mix fish paste with pork. Try to pick up one strip of pork to see how well the paste is sticking to the pork. If it is falling off easily, add 1-2 teaspoon of corn starch to mixture and mix well.
2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop pork/fish paste into the pot one strip at a time. They will sink to the bottom first. When they consistently float on the surface, strain them out. Do this until all is cooked.
3. Bring stock to a boil in another pot. Add garlic, bamboo shoots, and mushroom. Simmer for about 5 minutes.
4. Add cooked pork/fish and vinegar into the soup. Bring back to a boil and season with salt, sugar, and pepper.
5. In a cup mix the corn starch with 3 Tbsp of cold water. Make sure no lumps are present. Stir into the soup and bring back to a boil to thicken.
6. Scramble the egg in a bowl and add to the soup. Turn off the heat and stir in Cilantro.
7. Serve over cooked rice vermicelli or as is.

Note: Use Chinese red vinegar or spiced black vinegar if you have it. The pork to fish paste ratio is 2:1.


charles said…
what kind of bamboo shoots do you use? the ones from a can, or fresh ones from the market, which you then peel and slice. i really like fresh 冬笋, but i've only seen them nyc, and they're mad expensive. what kind are you supposed to use in the real authentic version of this taiwanese dish?
Albertitto said…
To be honest, I am not too clear on the different bamboo shoots. I know there's the winter shoots, the Ma-Bamboo shoots, and the spring shoots. I have not been able to find good fresh shoots in the market -- they all have green tips (so they are bitter) or they have been sitting out for too long since harvetsting. I use frozen ones, which I find better than canned or the ones they typically sell in water in a big open bucket for you to pick. The ones in the bucket tasted just like canned to me. The texture and color are so strange...too soft and yellow. The frozen ones is probably the spring kind, so I suppose they were packaged at their peak. Still, this is not that tender. You can use it in soups and heavy stir fries. Definitely not salad. I heard there is a bamboo shoots "farm" in LA, so it may be possible to buy good fresh shoots in CA.
Albertitto said…
oh i want to clarify that if I use it in soup, it is definitely not the main component.

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