Learning something from China about tomatoes seems a strange proposition, but xihongshi jidan tang, the Chinese tomato-egg(drop) soup offers an experience.
A great one at that.
China is, of course, one of the many countries – all countries but ones in central America, by and large – where the tomato is an import.
The fruit only spread around the world after Columbus, like so many other plants (like the chile pepper).
Other than the chile pepper, the tomato has not had quite as much of an impact on China. Or at least, the Westerner would want to believe that, given how Chinese see (and label) cocktail tomatoes as something other than bigger ones and often put them into fruit salad.
The two main Chinese dishes in which tomatoes are the dominant ingredient still follow great ideas: They are simple. And they are very tasty. At least, when everything’s good.
One of those recipes is this tomato-egg (drop) soup.
Xihongshi Jidan Tang – Tomato-Egg (Drop) Soup
For xihongshi jidan tang, one needs one large ‘meaty’ tomato, one egg, some oil, 200-250 ml of water and 1-2 teaspoons of salt.
Cut the tomato in pieces. If you want to, you can also cut out the harder part in the middle or even peel it.
(Peeling is easy if the tomato is overripe or if one treats it with boiling water. Leaving the peel on makes the preparation faster, but the harder pieces of peel in the finished soup make for a mouth feel that is not the greatest.)
Heat the oil in a pan, ‘fry’ the tomato pieces… if one can talk of frying, given that it will turn into more of a dry boil, with all the water in the tomato.
(If desired, use good olive oil. It’s good for the taste and for the, at least supposed, healthiness of the meal. Neutral plant oil is more usual a choice.)
(The pan needs to be deep enough to hold all the ingredients, of course. This is a case I recommend not using an – iron – wok, though, as an iron pan can impart metallic flavor to the dish, which doesn’t make for a good experience.)
Add the water and salt to the ‘fried’ tomatoes and bring it all to a boil again.
When the soup is back to boiling, add in the egg, immediately stirring it to form the threads of egg typical for an egg drop soup.
When the egg is set (as in, immediately), one can put the soup in a bowl and on the table; that was it.
The Upsides of Tomato-Egg Drop Soup
Given that this is a soup, it will keep warm for quite a while. That makes this an excellent first dish to prepare for a typical Chinese non-order of dishes: For a typical Chinese meal, there are 2-4 dishes for two people on the table, all at once.
That requires some preparation and pre-planning to know when to finish off what so the first dish isn’t cooled out by the time the whole meal is set.
Why I love this soup in particular, for the flavors and the idea, is for two reasons.
For one, this is a recipe that could hardly be any simpler.
The ingredients are reduced to the essential. In fact, if you wanted to make a vegan variation of this soup, you could just as well leave out the egg and it would still be fine. It would just end up a little less rich and creamy.
We’d make soups from ready mixes or using stock cubes, normally. Or let ingredients simmer for a long time. Here, one only has the water, the salt, and the flavor-carrier that is the tomato.
The Importance of Ingredient Quality
Secondly, this simplicity makes the ingredients shine all the more – and shows how important their quality is.
Take a greenhouse tomato of a variety bred only for transport, and it will not even fall apart as nicely when cooking, as it should. Let alone give any good soup.
A nice meaty tomato of a good variety, fully ripened, and this soup gets an aroma and a creaminess as it could hardly be any better.
No special tricks required, not a long preparation, no special ingredients. Simply all good.