Sunday, September 5, 2010

Chuk (or Chook): Chinese rice soup

Remember the beggar who came - unwelcome - to the farmer's cottage and proceeded to make stone soup. He pulled a smooth stone from his pocket and put in a pot of boiling water, added herbs from the windowsill, a dry bit of ham on a bone, a handful of barley grains, a sprinkling of salt, a wrinkled potato and wild greens from the forest edge. By the time the broth was simmering and fragrant, the beggar, farmer and his family were all able to share in the meal.

The Chinese soup that my mother used to make was an adventure like that. We called it "chuk" or "chook" and it always started with a handful of white rice. By the end of the cooking, the rice would be almost porridge, gelatinous and filling all the spaces around the other ingredients that were added, with water and seasonings, over a two hour cooking time. Constant features of chuk included carrots, pumpkin, cabbage (or pakchoi), foochuk (sticks of gnarled bean curd that had been soaked or boiled to soften them). Occasional features were dried black mushrooms (sliced thin), sliced lotus roots or white nutty seeds, bamboo shoots sliced into thin strips, water chestnuts. Meat flavours varied from pork belly skin, lungs, heart or stomach; or delicate fillets of white fish like grouper. If fish is your meat, add it last on top the soup - it will cook in five minutes.

Chuk was the smell and taste of home. As rice was, and is - like the beggar's stone - the central or starting point of all Chinese meals.

This is my most recent attempt to make chuk. Each ingredient here is a symbol or doorway to a world of other vegetables that might be substituted. Just remember, rice is the starting point.

White rice, a sticky rice is best, half to one cup
Chicken, two or three breasts or three or four thighs or drumsticks
Carrot, one sliced
Tomato, one chopped
Ginger, thumb-sized sliced
Garlic, one clove crushed
Black mushrooms, 6-8, boiled and soaked, stems removed, sliced thin
Salt, half teaspoon or to taste
Black pepper to taste
Foochuk, if sticks boil and allow to soften, if flat sheets no need to pre-soak
Pumpkin, cubed
(Cabbage, sliced thin, or pakchoi leaves sliced)

In a deep pot, put chicken to boil covered with water, ginger, carrot, tomato and garlic.
When the water is boiling, reduce heat to slow boil and allow to cook for 15-20 minutes. Add rice and cook for 10-15 minutes more. You may slice through the thighs or drumsticks so that the meat will fall off the bone. Cook the chicken breasts whole and then slice after they are cooked.

Thinly slice the re-constituted black mushrooms and cut foochuk into bite sized lengths. Add to soup, continuing to simmer for 15 more minutes. Add pumpkin. Add water to maintain soup consistency. Adjust seasonings. Add cabbage or pakchoi last. Greens like pakchoi or spinach should be allowed to cook just enough to wilt not disintegrate. Use Chinese cabbage (sliced across in onion-like circles) if available. Other greens like broccoli, mustard greens may also be used - blanch broccoli separately and add at the end.

Serve in large Chinese bowls.

Both photos are of the same soup - there's more liquid in this bowl, for those who like the broth.


  1. My grandmother used to do this when we were sick, she said that this soup was was the best medicine, and she was right.

    She prepared with barley seeds, black mushrooms and root.

  2. My grandmother used to do this when we were sick, she said that this soup was was the best medicine, and she was right.

    She prepared with barley seeds, black mushrooms and root.

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