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Soups, or tang, play a huge role in the Chinese menu – they are served at breakfast and every other meal. Typically, there is a whole soup section on even a small street eatery’s menu, and contrary to the concept of a soup as a starter, it is treated as a main dish and comes in a huge bowl that will serve 2 to 3 people, if not more.

Ingredients and the level of spiciness vary widely between each soup, although there appear to be some favorites. I’ll present a brief sampling that contains most of the soups I had while in China:

1) A dish you will find almost anywhere (including Chinese textbooks!) and that is a traditional, homey meal all across China, is xi hong shi ji dan, or tomato & egg soup. Some are essentially egg drop soup with cubes of tomatoes, others have whole omelets in broth, and yet others are almost more of a tomato bisque with some egg swirled in.

Here’s a version I had in Beijing, which started my love affair with this dish:

In Chengdu, I got the slightly bizarre omelett-in-soup variety:

In Leshan in Sichuan province, I got a much more tomato-soup like version:

2) In Chengdu, I had a lovely soup consisting of broth with baby bok choy leaves – sounds plain, but really wasn’t! Plus, I did the Chinese thing and added some dark rice vinegar 🙂

3) Also in Chengdu, we had a lovely pork and mushroom soup that was earthy and flavorful:

4) In Beijing, in a tiny restaurant near Beihai Park, we got what I think is pretty much hot and sour soup with pork, as one knows it from Chinese restaurants around here:

5) In Emeishan, we had another batch of kelp soup, or hai dai tang, similar to a breakfast dish we had in Wenchuan. This was slippery to eat with chopsticks, and only for those that like chewy seaweed, but I loved it:

6) And finally, from Tangshan, a dish called yun nan guo qiao mi xian, or “noodles that cross the bridge”. This is a specialty containing extremely long rice flour noodles with meat of seafood balls (my version had shrimp balls) as well as some vegetables in a mild, clear broth that can be spiced up with pepper-oil. This is super filling, super cheap, and delicious dish!

So, as a bottom line, tang, or soup, is always a great, warming, filling option you’ll find anywhere, it’s low in calories, healthy, and flavorful, and you can hardly go wrong (Well, except maybe that omelet-soup…). Since you most likely will face many a menu that has no English whatsoever (or random English, with dishes translated as “not food”!), finding the character for tang can be an easy way to point and always get something good, with a surprise element.

What are some of your favorite soups? Are soups strictly a winter food for you? I didn’t expect I’d love hot soups in the heat of China, but it was actually really refreshing and helped me adjust.