On a rainy, raw Monday afternoon, after a full day's work capped with yet another wrist-gnawingly mind-numbing compulsory meeting of little substance, I take Hagrid on a walk in the cold drizzle, when memory, like will-o'-the-wisps, flickers around me when I least expect it, beckoning me toward a languid winding river flanked by green pastures and open blue sky.
I follow the river, and suddenly I am at the table from childhood, drinking a bowl of Grandma's tomato egg flower soup with bean sprouts, into which I've scooped some warm, sticky rice from my rice bowl.
It has been a while since I last tasted this soup; it's not particularly a favorite of mine, and yet, here is where the surprise appearance of will-o'-the-wisps has led me today.
Born into a time when only sons (and daughters of the upper class) were educated, my grandmother, an orphan raised by distant relatives, was illiterate. She had little use for measurements and recipes. Grandma cooked from the heart with her taste buds, nose, eyes, and ears, distilling flavors and textures into a combinations that nourished and delighted countless discerning palates.
You won't find most of my grandmother's creations in Americanized Chinese restaurants. I absolutely cannot stand the starchiness of the egg drop soup of American Chinese restaurants. Not at all like the real deal.
Luckily, my mother, brother, sisters, and I were all apprentices in grandma's kitchen. So here's a glimpse into this soup, recreated from memory. (Note: egg drop soup, translated literally, means egg flower soup. I've never forgiven the unimaginative English translation!)
Grandma's tomato egg flower soup with bean sprouts
- Vegetable oil
- Several tomatoes, seeded and cut into wedges (note: if desired, blanch to remove skin)
- 1-2 eggs, beaten well (grandma always beat eggs with chopsticks)
- a handful of soy or mung bean sprouts
- broth (homemade is the best, can be any kind of broth: veggie, chicken, pork, etc.)
- salt to flavor
- optional: scallions to garnish, white pepper, sesame or chili oil to flavor
- Heat up wok or frying pan. Add some oil, and when oil is hot, add bean sprouts and stir fry until they begin to become translucent. It won't take long. Be careful not to overcook. Transfer sprouts to a dish.
- Using the same wok, add tomatoes and stir fry for several minutes.
- Add enough broth to turn it into a soup. Turn heat down and simmer.
- In a bowl, beat egg(s) thoroughly. If you want to be a boss like grandma, do it with chopsticks and beat it so well you can't tell yolk from white. Do it with gusto so that you incorporate air into the beating. You should see air bubbles in the finished mixture.
- When the tomatoes are tender (they should not be too hard or too soft), turn off the heat. Drizzle the beaten egg mixture into the soup in a circular pattern (do not drop the whole bowl in at once... think egg flower, not egg drop!). The egg will flower in wisps. Add bean sprouts. Stir gently.
- Garnish with scallions, if you like. Flavor with sesame or chili oil, or both. Eat with a bowl of rice.