This broth, dotted with cubes of soft winter melon and bits of mushroom and pork, isn't an elaborate or fussy soup — it's what the Chinese call "cheng," or clear. The flavor is subtle; the experience is all about warmth and comfort.
The recipe is simple, my mother says, insisting that I please remind my friends that she's "not a good cook" (even though she is) and that this is a very plain, "nothing special" soup that she makes at home for regular meals.
The first thing you'll need for this soup is winter melon, which you can find in Asian grocery stores or any Chinatown produce store.
You can make large batches of this soup, versions that are made with pork bones and require hours of boiling, my mother notes. But when she's in a hurry, she forgoes pork bones, preferring to use minced pork instead.
"If you're using minced pork, then cut the cubes smaller," she says, showing me how she dices them into 1/2-inch cubes. You want the melon to be soft enough to chew and minced pork takes far less time to cook than pork bones do, she notes. "If you're using pork bones," she adds, "then you can cut the melon into bigger cubes."
Next, you soak the Chinese mushroom in some water to soften it. Then you soak some dong cai, which is a salty preserved Chinese cabbage that lends umami to any soup, in some water. "You have to soak it because there's usually some sand in the dong cai," my mother warns.
Then you mix the pork and dong cai together, adding white pepper, vegetable oil and soy sauce to the mix and using that to form little meatballs.
Then, as my mother always says, "You throw everything in the pot and boil, boil, boil!"
Because we're making a small portion that day, it isn't very long at all before we're sitting down to sip my mother's winter melon soup. The taste is subtle, as I remembered, and the juicy bites of soft winter melon are punctuated with mouthfuls of peppery and salty minced pork.
For many years, my mother never bothered to teach me how to make this soup because it was so plain and so easy that she couldn't see me wanting to learn this boring recipe. Amid the procession of elaborate meals that I sometimes find myself having in New York, however, simple is a welcome change.
My mother was right on two counts — her winter melon soup certainly is plain and easy. But boring? Not a chance.
If you'd like to join Let's Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #Letslunch — or, post a comment below.
And don't forget to see other Let's Lunchers' fall soups below:
Cathy's Swiss Chard Mushroom Soup with Fregola at ShowFood Chef
Danielle's Carrot Soup & Chicharrons at Bon Vivant
Ellise's Potimarron ("Frenchy Pumpkin" Soup) at Cowgirl Chef
Emma's Roasted Tomato Soup at Dreaming of Pots And Pans
Linda's Oven-Baked Soup at Free Range Cookies
Mai Hoang's Apple Beer Cheese Soup at Cooking in The Fruit Bowl
Steff's Carrot Habanero Soup at The Kitchen Trials
My Mom's Winter-Melon Soup
1/3 lb minced pork
1 Chinese mushroom, soaked in room-temperature water to soften
1 TB dong cai (salted, preserved dried cabbage)
1 inch-thick slice of winter melon
2.5 to 3 cups water
1/2 tsp vegetable oil
White pepper, soy sauce and salt to taste
Cut off skin of winter melon and slice into 1/2-inch cubes. Soak dong cai in a little water and rinse it out to remove impurities. Then, add dong cai to pork, mixing well. Add vegetable oil, some white pepper, a little bit of soy sauce and then form the mixture into rounded, one teaspoon-sized meatballs. Slice mushroom into bite-size pieces.
Bring water to boil in a small pot then add mushroom slices, cover and simmer for five minutes. Add meatballs to pot, stir slightly then add winter melon cubes. Add salt to taste (at least 1/4 teaspoon), cover and boil for 10 minutes. The soup is ready to serve at this point if the winter melon is soft enough to chew — but feel free to boil it longer if you want the flavors to intensify.