Features 4 minutes 16 January 2023

Restore your yin and yang: The extraordinary Cantonese soups from Hong Kong MICHELIN restaurants

From Cantonese home to MICHELIN-starred establishments, many of their kitchens begin the morning similarly, by making one of the most time-consuming and important elements in Cantonese cuisine in time for lunch – soup.

Cantonese Chef Interview Chinese Cuisine soup

“In Chinese food culture, a meal isn’t complete without a bowl of soup,” says Wong Lap Yan, second-generation owner of Sang Kee. Sang Kee’s head chef Luk Wai Kau adds, “But the definitions of soups vary greatly from region to region. Cantonese soups are incredibly sophisticated and the culture is very strong here in Hong Kong.”
Soups, or tong in Cantonese, are seen as an elixir. Many believe that it’s therapeutic to consume at least a bowl of soup at every meal.

It takes at least four hours to make double-boiled soups and three for slow-boiled soups. Anything less than three hours is considered quick-boiled soup. (Photo: Gloria Chung)
It takes at least four hours to make double-boiled soups and three for slow-boiled soups. Anything less than three hours is considered quick-boiled soup. (Photo: Gloria Chung)

Quick-boiled soup VS Slow-boiled soup VS Double-boiled soup

According to traditional Chinese medicine, foods have their own healing qualities –some are cooling, some are warming, others may be great for your joints, beauty or organs.
Different combinations of these vegetables, herbs, fruits and usually a source of protein would be boiled together for a long time to extract these qualities fully and impart them to the soup.
There are three main types of Cantonese soups: gwan tong (滾湯 quick-boiled soup), lou fo tong (老火湯 slow-boiled soup) and dan tong (燉湯 double-boiled soup).
It takes at least four hours to make double-boiled soups and three for slow-boiled soups. Anything less than three hours is considered quick-boiled soup.
For slow-boiled soup and quick-boiled soup, ingredients are boiled in water directly, whereas for double-boiled soup, you put ingredients and water in a sealed ceramic pot before submerging it in a bigger pot of boiling water.
Cantonese soups are mostly devoid of any additional condiment. The consommé is appreciated for the natural sweetness and umami flavors whereas the dregs are often discarded. “Double-boiling makes clearer soups and encapsulates the essence of the ingredients; slow-boiled soups are much cloudier and richer in flavors,” says chef Tam Tung of one-MICHELIN-starred Yat Tung Heen.

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One of Lung King Heen's signature dishes is Superior Pottage with Shredded Chicken. ( Photo: Gloria Chung)
One of Lung King Heen's signature dishes is Superior Pottage with Shredded Chicken. ( Photo: Gloria Chung)

It’s all about the seasons

The types of ingredients used depend largely by the seasons and one’s body conditions.
“Some soups are suitable only for a particular season whereas some are suitable all year long. Chinese yam, dace fish and rice beans together would be food for removing ‘fire’ in your joints; snow fungus and apricot kernels are known for its moisturizing effects,” says chef Chan Yan Tak of Lung King Heen, sounding like a Chinese doctor.
The three-MICHELIN-starred institute offers a different slow-boiled soup daily, in addition to its more premium double-boiled soup offerings.

Chef Chan Yan Tak of Lung King Heen. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
Chef Chan Yan Tak of Lung King Heen. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
“These wisdoms have been passed down for generations. I think all the Cantonese chefs would know these by heart.”
Lung King Heen’s menu has various types of soups. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
Lung King Heen’s menu has various types of soups. (Photo: Maggie Wong)

Luk of Sang Kee explains the difference needs in different seasons, “Spring is the time to get rid of the extra dampness in the body and moisturize your throat; summer is to ward off the heat in the body; autumn is for adjusting and preparing your body for the winter; winter is for moisturizing and absorbing nutrients.”
“We don’t put any strong Chinese medicinal herbs in our soups.”

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“ Our soups are made with simple ingredients so that you could appreciate all the flavors from each of the ingredients like how your mother would make at home.”
Sang Kee's chef and owner said many of Sang Kee’s soup recipes actually did come from Wong’s mother, who founded the Cantonese eatery with her husband 45 years ago.Today, the eatery makes a different lou fo tong daily and offers them for free during lunch. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
Sang Kee's chef and owner said many of Sang Kee’s soup recipes actually did come from Wong’s mother, who founded the Cantonese eatery with her husband 45 years ago.Today, the eatery makes a different lou fo tong daily and offers them for free during lunch. (Photo: Maggie Wong)

What are the Cantonese soups to try this winter

As winter is approaching, the chefs offer some tips on making suitable soups for the cold and dry weather.
Chef Chan from Lung King Heen introduces earnestly, “Today, I’ve prepared a soup with Asian pears, snow fungus, pumpkins, apricot kernels and chickens. This is very soothing for one’s body especially in autumn and winter.”
It’s believed that Asian pears, pumpkins, apricot kernels and snow fungus could replenish moisture in one’s body whereas chicken adds natural sweetness to the soup.
The chef adds, “Not just any chicken – you need an older chicken that weigh more than 1.5 kilograms for that condense rich flavors.”

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The soup at Lung King Heen changes daily. (Maggie Wong)
The soup at Lung King Heen changes daily. (Maggie Wong)
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Tam says diners could try Yat Tung Heen’s Pork Lung Soup with Fish Maw and Almond. The slow-boiled creamy white soup is said to be filled with collagen and is good for one’s respiratory system and skin.
But if you’re a vegetarian, Yat Tung Heen also offers a double-boiled Cabbage Soup with Yellow Fungus, Bamboo Pith and Black Mushrooms. (Photo: Yat Tung Heen)

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“It’s a laborious dish to make as pork lungs are difficult to clean and cook. That’s why fewer and fewer restaurants are serving them now.”
 Yat Tung Heen’s Pork Lung Soup with Fish Maw and Almond. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
Yat Tung Heen’s Pork Lung Soup with Fish Maw and Almond. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
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At Sang Kee, Wong and Luk bring out lists of soups they’ve been serving for the last two years.
During the pandemic, Wong consulted a Chinese doctor to design some soups that would moisturize ones’ throats and lungs and boost immunity. “We hope to contribute a little to the society by cooking these soups for our diners – who are often office workers who don’t have time to make their own soups at home,” says Luk.
“It’s for our staff, too. After a long day at work, who have three hours to boil some soup when they’re home?” says Wong. (Photo: Sang Kee)

A good bowl of soup

Luk adds, “And without boiling it three to four hours, you can’t taste the fo hau in the soup.”
“Fo hau” is a frequent term Cantonese use to describe a bowl of soup.
Meaning fire and time literally, it describes an ethereal taste of the duration and degree of heat exerted when cooking in the dish.
At Sang Kee, the pot of soup is always cooked by boiling and never simmering.
It’s first brought to boil in high heat for the first 30 minutes or so, before turning it down to medium high heat for another hour. And finally, it is boiling at medium low heat.
“If you simmer it at a low heat, even if you give it enough time, the flavors and substances from the ingredients wouldn’t melt and dissolve into water,” says Luk.
“That’s why it’s called ‘lou fo’ (old fire) – you need some heat,” Wong continues for Luk.
While different chefs may have different tips for soup-making, they all agree that a good bowl of soup needs a generous amount of ingredients, time and heat.
“Just because we make lou fo tong at home, doesn’t make it easy to make. There are some of the secrets I would only share off record,” laughs Luk.
He proudly adds, “We’re very particular about our lou fo tong. You could come try our soups and you could tell there is a different from what you have had at home.”


At Sang Kee, the pot of soup is always cooked by boiling and never simmering. (Photo: Maggie Wong)
At Sang Kee, the pot of soup is always cooked by boiling and never simmering. (Photo: Maggie Wong)

This article is written by Maggie Hiufu Wong for MICHELIN Guide Hong Kong Macau. 

Hero image provided by Yat Tung Heen.

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