Fish soup—when hot water just isn’t enough

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China has long been known as a world leader in using natural elements to cure illnesses and improve health. Their most renowned traditional practices are the use of herbs in their medicine as well as their daily consumption of hot water. No matter how warm or cold it is outside, Chinese people swear by boiling hot water. People say it cleanses the digestive system and helps with many physical problems like menstrual cramps, but what about nutrients for the body and mind? That is where fish and most importantly hot fish soup comes in. This popular dish can be found on almost every Chinese family’s table at the restaurant, a family gathering or in a simple dinner at home. It’s very popular with children and elders, but also for the general population.

The fish provides nutrients that help keep the body ‘happy’ and healthy. It also is said to improve intelligence and the calcium contained in the fish strengthens the bones. The overall soup broth can differ from one person to the other, but the one that my father-in-law makes himself is a mix of beneficial ingredients that harmonize themselves with the properties of the fish: vegetable oil, garlic, ginger, a broth made from a real chicken stock, chili peppers and green shallots.

I never liked the taste or even the smell of fish, which made it quite hard for me to try fish soup. Up until I got pregnant with my first daughter, I was able to avoid eating or drinking the fish soup—but pregnancy in a Chinese family does not make it easy to make your own healthy choices. Like many other pregnant women, I had to hide to drink anything cold and I was served fish soup twice a day. It was believed to help the developing fetus even better than the prenatal pills containing folic acid or DHA.

Even if I could not keep it down at all due to the overwhelming sense of smell caused by my raging hormones and hid to throw it away, I did appreciate one thing — the time and care that my father-in-law, who was working very hard every day, took to come in our home before work in the morning to prepare the fish soup before I woke up and prepare it again after work for dinner. If a Chinese relative, friend or boyfriend/girlfriend prepares fish soup for someone, they deeply care about them and their well-being.

While my own personal experience with fish soup has been marked by reluctance, many of my friends and relatives who came to visit us in China had a more positive experience with it. Since this dish is made differently depending on who is preparing it, it offers a large range of possible flavours to accommodate one’s taste. For example, if you like it sweeter, add sugar; for a spicier version, add chili. It is generally believed to be very effective for pregnancies, sicknesses, body aches, growth, sexual appetite and maintaining beauty.

For curious foreigners who have not had the chance to experience the wonders of this Chinese dish firsthand, here is the name of a simple recipe for a fish soup originating in Sichuan province: suancai yu (酸菜鱼), or hot and sour fish soup with pickled vegetables. Its recipe can be found everywhere online for all to enjoy, such as this version on the Omnivore’s Cookbook.

Have you ever tried Chinese fish soup? What do you think of this dish?

Sabrina Mailhot

One comment

  1. Not sure if you’ll agree but seems like homemade fish soups don’t have a recipe set in stone. Every family will have their own rendition of it. Regardless of the taste, we can all appreciate family’s efforts in caring for our well-being.

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