I picked this package of Chinese soup mix up at the Wa Kiu Chinese Grocery in Ottawa a few weeks ago. I have seen these packages many times and always wanted to give them a try. There are lots of different varieties available in this brand, many with some very unusual ingredients, but I was curious to see what the crocodile meat variety might be like…
The back of the package lists the ingredients and some brief instructions for using them but, while the Ingredients are translated into English, the instructions are only printed in Chinese. I seem to recall that there is a legal requirement that foodstuffs sold in Canada must list the ingredients in English (or at least one of the official languages) but I presume that the manufacturers figured that non-Chinese are not likely to be making this soup and thus decided there was no point in going beyond the strict requirements of the law and wasting ink on English instructions…
The first thing to note is that this product is not merely a foodstuff, as such, but is also supposed to have medicinal value. The Chinese text immediately below the words ‘Crocodile Meat Soup Mix’ list the ‘Function’ of the soup and we are told that the whole family can drink this all year round to preserve good ‘lung region’ health. The actual text is a little more detailed this and makes specific reference to ‘phlegm’ and so forth, but suffice it to say, it is touted as being good for whatever may ail you in the breathing department.
The ingredient list in English is a little misleading so let’s take a look at the components individually:
Crocodile Meat: The Chinese characters for this ingredient are鱷魚肉. The third character simply means flesh, or meat, but the other two can mean either crocodile or alligator. It is impossible to tell just by looking which animal this is actually from but, since the product is from Hong Kong, I suspect it is, in fact, crocodile. The consistency of it no different than any jerky (you can see the marks from the drying racks as with other jerkies) and the aroma is very much like that of dried squid.
Polygonatum: The Chinese name for this, 玉竹, translates as ‘jade bamboo, but the more common name in English is ‘Solomon’s seal’. It comes from a plant in the lily family and the part is eaten is the dried rhizome. There are lots of soup recipes on the Internet using this ingredient and a number of these sites do mention that it is to be used for pulmonary function, especially in cases where there is dry, sticky phlegm. When tasted in the dry state it is very like wafers of semi-dry coconut flesh.
Sea coconut: Although there is a type of African coconut called the ‘sea coconut, the ingredient you see pictured here is the dried, sliced fruit of the sugar palm that grows in South-east Asia,. Like Polygonatum, it is often used to treat lung disorders. It is very difficult to chew and swallow when still in the dry state and has very little taste other than a slight woodiness.
Preserved dates: The Chinese name for these is most commonly translated as candied jujube. I have found various references to jujubes as being dried red Chinese dates but most pictures I came across on the Internet then gave a different Chinese character name and the appearance of those is much redder than you see here. These things do have the appearance of dates, however, so I assume this is just a different variety. Chinese dates are said to be good for a sore throat and apparently are used in some western pharmacological preparations.
Apricot: Clearly, as you can see, these little things are most definitely not apricots. They are, however the seed of a particular variety of apricot grown in Asia and the Chinese name on the package translates as ‘southern apricot’. The taste is quite strong and is very like marzipan. In fact, these seeds are also called ‘Chinese almonds’ and they are sometimes used, along with regular almonds to flavor amaretto and biscotti.
Orange Peel: The Chinese name, 陳皮, translates as ‘old skin’ and can actually be the dried skin of either oranges or tangerines. It is a fairly common ingredient in both Chinese cookery as well as Chinese medicine where it has a variety of uses, including supposedly clearing up mucous.
I am merely a novice student of written Chinese and I have to confess that translating the instructions on the back of this package really put my abilities to the test. There was one character in particular that I had a very hard time identifying and it caused quite a bit of confusion.
I began by translating the numbered instructions and came up with the following:
- Soak Crocodile meat in cold water 15 minutes, and rinse the remaining ingredients.
- Measure 15 cups water into a saucepan, bring to a boil, put in all ingredients including (lean) meat, cook 2 hours, add salt to taste, serve immediately.
Had I began with the line above the numbered section, I may have saved myself some difficulty. It was the ‘瘦’ in the second line that I couldn’t identify at first and I couldn’t understand why the instruction specified adding the ingredients and the meat… why not just say ‘add all the ingredients’, for heaven’s sake? I also was surprised that the instructions called for 15 cups of water as this seemed like a heck of a lot for such a small package…
It wasn’t until I looked at the line above the numbered instructions that reads:
製法: 四人份量 (預備瘦肉12兩)
This line also contains the ‘瘦’ character and it was only then that I identified it as being the character for ‘lean’. The line informs you that the soup will serve 4, but the bit in brackets then goes on to say that you must ‘have ready 600g of lean meat’. This, of course, is in addition to what is provided in the bag and so now the 15 cups of water makes a bit more sense
Making the Soup…
Above, you can see what the dried meat looks like after being soaked as instructed. Frankly, I cannot see why this step was required as the meat barely softened during this step and is going to get a good two-hour soaking in hot water anyway.
This is the meat I used. It is very lean pork cutlet trimmed of the edge fat. The instructions are silent as to how to prepare the meat and could easily require that it be put into the pot in a single chunk. In the absence of any direction, I cut it into fairly thick slices.
I brought the water to a boil as directed and added the ingredients. I rinsed the dry flavorings as the instructions seem to indicate (this part of the translation was bit grammatically tricky for me), but, again, this step seemed a bit superfluous.
Finally, I turned the heat down for the two-hour cooking period. The instructions use the characters ’明火’, which mean ‘bright flame’ so I took that to mean a bit more heat that one normally uses for soup and I kept it at a pretty vigorous simmer.
And this is what it looked like served into a bowl for a small serving. It wasn’t clear from the instructions whether one is supposed to serve the solid ingredients or whether it is intended that you strain these out and just drink the broth. I kept them in so that my wife and I could taste them individually…
This was surprisingly good – better than I anticipated, in fact – and both my wife and I enjoyed it. The broth was very light and delicate and not at all medicinal as I rather expected. The almond taste of the ‘apricot’ seeds was dominant and though I would never have thought that this would be a good taste in a savory dish it really went well with the pork.
I did conclude, though, that the idea is probably that the solid ingredients be strained before the broth is drunk. The sea coconut was actually even harder to chew than when it was dry and some of the other ingredients were quite chewy and tough as well. The pork wasn’t too bad but it was very nearly at the point where it had given up its entire flavor. We still have quite a bit of the broth left and I think I may now strain it and maybe serve it with some scallion and perhaps another simple ingredient or two.