Chinese Herbal Chicken Soup with Ultra Clear Broth

Soup at this stage is ready for the final simmering.

Here's is a lovely and easy soup from China.  There's so much negativity about China lately, that I thought it was time to undo some of it with some authentic Chinese comfort food. This soup is gorgeous, and it showcases a little known chef's technique for making a reliably clear soup broth.

When it's simmering, the house is filled with a gentle sweet/herbal bouquet. It uses a kit which can be bought for just a few dollars to flavor the soup, and needs only ginger and carrots, plus one whole chicken.  Scroll down to skip intro and get right to the recipe.  I can think of no better way to ward off the estrangement of a trade war than through comfort food. 
The soup is, of course, renowned for its ability to stop a cold in its tracks.
 My other reason for presenting it, besides that it's a beautiful soup, is that I found out I lost a chance to make up with a friend that I fell out with.  With all that's happening in Hong Kong right now, I just wanted to be sure she was all right.  Well, it had nothing to do with the protests in HK, but she was not all right.  She had died almost four years ago of breast cancer.  It took a day or two to hit me, but I was just so sorry I never got a chance to make up. When I was graduating from college she stayed with me for a few months while she was working out some personal problems.

We ended up cooking together, comparing recipes, listening to each other's life stories, and generally becoming sisters.  She called me "little sister" and I was honored to be included in her frame of reference. Partly I wanted to make this soup because she had told me about it (but language failed her in this, since the ingredients are complex).  When I heard she had passed away, I made yet another attempt to find the recipe.  This time the internet rewarded me with a recipe. Until that recipe, the only way I knew how to make it is the way I'm going to show you now.

Don't worry, this recipe is the "easy way."

Since I didn't want to wait for things to be delivered, I chose the "easy way" to make the soup.  This involves buying a packet of herbs in an Asian store, so I headed out to Grand Asia. Here's what they look like (below).  I've seen larger packets which are flatter as well.  The basic idea is that you boil the chicken with the herbs and a couple of other easily available things, for 2-3 hours.

You've probably seen "soup kits" in specialty stores, with some rice and beans and herbs in them?  Well this is the Chinese version of that. There are herb mixes that are traditional with pork, and chicken.  So far I haven't seen one for beef or lamb, but if you have, let me know.

I ended up using both of the ones on the left (red package and orange/yellow package).  I made it with just one packet first and it wasn't strong enough.These are smaller packages than I'm used to using.

Three packets of Chinese herbs for soup, the pink one on the right is for pork, the other two are for chicken.


 Want to see inside?  I opened the two I would use for chicken soup.

The English ingredient list on this one didn't impress me, but it had a nice variety.  Could've used some botanical names though. Click to enlarge the view.

Ahh that's what I mean by botanical names!  Nice one!  Mmm, goji berries!

There's no hope of getting an Organic label on these, I just have to cling to the trust that the Chinese take herbs very seriously.  I use my nose and sniff.  If it doesn't smell right, I don't use it, and go find another brand or a fresher looking one. The one in the red package had the strongest and nicest sweet smell.  So I like it best. But in the years I've made it, I've bought all different brands of it.  What's "best" or indeed what's available, may change over time.

Each packet should have something like the following:
  • Red Dates
  • Two kinds of roots often one is Astragalus
  • Goji berries
  • Longan or Lychee (dried)
  • If you see mushrooms in the packet, then it's probably for pork.  
So the first step is to take the items out of the package, sniff them and make sure it smells sweetish and pleasant, not moldy and sharp. 
 Feel free to embellish the meal by buying a few cans of Lychee or Longan if you like those.  They're a bit like, canned peaches that are firmer, white, and smell like roses.  Feel adventurous?  Try it as a dessert after the soup.

The Blanch

There's an interesting feature of making this soup, the meat is blanched before using.  (even more reasons given here) Having a bit of trouble moving around, I use a system of boiling, rinsing in a bowl of cold water, and then using the meat in the recipe. But the process below works great also. The goal is to keep the soup clear and make sure the taste is clean and gentle.

Some of the valuable fats are lost while blanching, so the flavor will be milder.  I always rinse poultry anyway, because I don't like the smell or flavor of it if it's not rinsed.  But the blanching was a new idea to me.  I'm glad I didn't change that part of the recipe.  I still got some lovely golden ringlets of fat floating on top, so no worries.

While blanching, the water turned whitish and cloudy. French cookbooks tell you to use some eggs and their shells and wait for a raft to form. Then for purely clear consomme, you must strain it through cloth? Ugh. To me this is messy and honestly it never worked right. Washing out the whitish cloudy stuff first seems much more manageable and foolproof. If you prefer a pretty and clear broth, this is the superior method.

When you're ready to blanch the meat, either use your own method or follow this one:

While blanching, cut the carrots into large chunks and peel the ginger.  You can chop the ginger or leave it whole, up to you.

While we're talking about chicken, why is it so hard to  get giblets anymore?  I'm sure that freezers work as well today as they did in the 1950s, but no giblets?  It's even weirder that I was able to find giblets more often in the NE.  You'd think it would be easier Down East, no?

The Fix 

At this point, you're ready to assemble the soup and boil, then simmer.  However, when I tasted the soup (after cooking) I found it was missing the salt, and was generally bland beyond a gentle sweet herbal flavor.  I consulted my memory of the "five tastes" in Asian cooking, and added (sparingly!) salt, a splash of rice vinegar, a jalapeno cut in half.  This fix is missing some bitter flavor, so if I had some celery I should've added it, or bok choy would've worked too.  My fix was good though.  A delicate and herbal flavor supported by the background flavors, emerged.

Be especially careful not to add too much salt, actually start at 1/4 of the salt you would expect to add normally.  And spicy-hot peppers should again be sparingly added.  Neither of these should overwhelm the gentle herbal sweetness that is the correct flavor of the soup. However, if it's too bland, it's reasonable to correct it.

The Five Flavors Theory   --  I like that article about the five tastes (above) because it talks about the other flavors beyond the 5. I've seen standard lists of flavors that include spicy as a flavor. And when I read about the trigeminal nerve itself, separately from theory about cooking, it shows that people are splitting hairs. So as far as I care, there are 8 tastes: sweet, salty, sour, spicy, cooling, bitter, meaty (umami), unctuous (fatty). Only 5 are essential for a well rounded flavor though: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, meaty. Note that vegetarians get their "meaty/umami" from fermented foods and mushrooms usually.

Recipe follows.

Clear, fragrant and comforting herbal soup.

 Chinese Herbal Chicken Soup Recipe


30 min for blanching and chopping a few vegetables, including waiting time for boiling water
2-3 hours simmering time


1-2 Packets of Chinese Chicken Soup Herbs (see images above)
1 whole chicken with giblets if you can find it, get as close to that as you can
     *I don't remove the skin from it.
Three large or five small carrots chopped into large rounds or chunks
At least 2 inches of ginger,peeled and chopped
Optional, 1 jalapeno hot pepper, sliced in half
Optional, 1 teaspoon salt
Optional, 2 Tablespoons rice vinegar (or wine vinegar)
Enough water to blanch and rinse.
Enough water to completely cover meat and an extra 3 inches above, for generous portions of broth.


1.  Quarter the chicken if it's whole, then blanch it, and giblets, if any, for 2-3 minutes in boiling water. (Plan to discard that water or use it in your garden.)

2.  Peel carrots and ginger while blanching or just wait until the chicken is on the stove first.

3.  Drain. Rinse the chicken, refill the pot with water, add chicken.  Fill the pot with water, up to three inches above the chicken so you have generous amounts of yummy broth.

4.   Set the stove on medium, and add the rest of the ingredients.

5.  When the soup boils (don't worry it won't cloud up anymore!), turn heat down to med-low or low.

6.  Simmer soup for 2-3 hours.

Finishing:  Remove the skin which may be floating in an unsightly way.  Take great care to avoid putting small bones into a bowl of soup, especially for children (choking hazard).  Put either a large piece of meat or smaller ones in a bowl and try to capture a few carrots, then fill the bowl with delicious golden soup.

Bon App├ętit!

This recipe is in honor of Tsui Ping Chan Ciccariello, a woman who could day-trade with the best of them, climb mountains all day, and speak at least 5 languages.  She would relax while making artistic woodburnings, and we met in a Chinese History class (an elective for both of us) in college.  I hope she forgives me for losing touch and that she rests in peace. 

Update:  Today is Oct 1, 2019, and Tsang Tsz Kin was shot yesterday in a protest in Hong Kong.  He survived.  He is the first man to be injured by a live round, in the riots and protests against Chinese rule in HK.  If we ever needed comfort, and reminding that culture is not bound by borders, that time is now.


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