Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Watercress, Dried Red Dates and Pork Soup

The thing that I miss the most about living out of home is my mum’s soups. Soup is an important part of Chinese food culture. It is a part of every meal, served at the beginning to stimulate the appetite, or consumed throughout the meal where I often like to have spoonfuls of soup with my rice, but my family usually has soup at the end of the meal, to finish off and help aid digestion.

Soup is also valued for its healing powers, where it is consumed for its nourishing and restorative effects, and it is an ancient tradition to treat colds or fevers with soup. But I guess soup has this sort of significance in every culture - chicken soup in various forms all over the world has a reputation for being a remedy for when you are unwell and is considered a comfort food. However, the Chinese place much more importance on the health benefiting functions of soups where a lot of the traditional Chinese soups are gentle tonics - thin and clear soups, like a consommé, made with fresh or dried vegetables, lean meats or fish, flavored by natural herbal and medicinal ingredients, and simmered for hours. There is an emphasis on soups containing both yin (feminine, darker, cooling forces) and yang (masculine, lighter, hot forces) ingredients to restore the imbalances between the cold and hot elements in the body, as the Chinese believe that illness is a signal that the two forces are out of balance.

My mum will always have some concoction simmering away for the whole day in her slow cooker and I remember that when I used to come home from school, one of the first questions I would ask was not “what’s for dinner?” but “what soup are we having tonight?” This was because I looked forward to having a bowl of soup as an after school snack before dinner and if I was hungry, I would mix some rice leftover from the night before in with the soup.

I don’t cook soup a lot so when I’m over at my parents, my mum will always fuss over me not having enough soup at home and thus not getting enough nourishment. She would have my favourite soups cooking for me in her slow cooker for the nights I’m over for dinner and then insist that I take some home. 


This watercress and dried red date is one such soup – cooked over a long period of time in the slow cooker, it’s delicious and full of health benefits. This is a common soup and every Chinese family would have their own way of cooking it. Watercress possesses many benefits - it is rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C, a source of antioxidants and it is considered a yin food with cooling elements. The pork is the yang providing the heating element resulting in a complementary balance. Red dates are also good for circulation and relieving stress. I love the flavour of this soup where the peppery and tangy edge of the watercress is tempered by the addition of dried red dates which sweetens.
Dried Red Dates  

I made this soup for the first time a few months ago during the lead up to two conferences I was a part of organizing, where for the first time in my life I was so busy that I wasn’t cooking as much as I generally do, and I was feeling stressed out over a lot of things. As this soup uses a few ingredients and was easy to cook, I made it one night and just ate it with rice as there were meat and vegetables in the broth, it felt like a complete meal. This soup also made me less stressed, well it’s supposed to with all the health purporting ingredients in it, but maybe the unstressing feeling was more to do with that fact that it brought back thoughts of being at home and mum looking after me, and for that moment I felt a lot calmer about everything.

Is there a soup that you like to cook that provides a good pick-me-up?

Ok, so you might think it’s weird to drink soup now because if you live in the Southern Hemisphere (I’m in Perth, Australia) it is summer and hot! But funnily enough, in Chinese culture, some soups are considered ‘cooling’ and a way to remove excessive ‘heat’ from the body and this watercress soup is one of the soup’s that has a cool nature.

Water cress, dried red dates and pork soup

Note: I used a pressure cooker which enabled me to cut down the cooking time significantly making it something that I can wipe up in half an hour. The quantities my mum gave me was for her 6 litre slow cooker so I had to scale down and guesstimate the quantities of ingredient to make a smaller amount of soup.

•    2.5 litre water
•    850g pork bones
•    2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped into 3-4cm pieces
•    1 cup dried red dates
•    1 ½ teaspoon salt
•    1 ½ tablespoon fish sauce
•    1 bunch of water cress (~ 550-600g)


Trim the bottom tougher stems parts off, cut/break into shorter stalks and wash the watercress (you should end up with around 400g).

Chop pork bones into 6-7cm pieces. Par-boil the pork bones and rinse with cold water.

Bring to boil 2.5 litres water in the pressure cooker pot (just have the lid on but don’t have it locked to the pressure cooker function or use a different lid). Add in the pork bones, carrots and dried red dates. Turn the pressure cooking function on and cook for 15 minutes.  Note: If not using a pressure cooker, you can use a pot to simmer on low heat for 1.5-2 hours or slow cooker it for hours.

Turn off the pressure cooker, remove lid, add salt and fish sauce to taste.

Bring to boil, then add watercress and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.

 Adding watercress into the pot


  1. Oh my goodness, I bet so this is sooooooooo health-giving! I love chewing on those little red dates (plums?) when I have a sore throat.

    1. Thanks Lizzy :) Yes, I think you can have red dates as a snack, I didn't know they are good for sore throats too!

  2. Wow, this is an awesome post Ai-Ling! I've never really understood the significance of the different hot and cold parts of the body (my mother is from Malaysia and her mother used to believe the same things... mum hasn't really carried on the traditions though!) but I can understand why this soup would be a wonderful tonic on hot days. It looks soothing and delicious, even in the photographs! I'm sure that your mum would be proud that you're making these soups yourself. Thanks for sharing this recipe with us!

  3. My mum always made a pork bone soup with lots of vegetables like daikon, cabbage and carrot. Funily enough although my husband never grew up on it, he loves it!

  4. This looks and sounds lovely Ai-Ling. Reminds me of Japanese style clear broths. I am totally curious about the dried red dates now :) I also think I need a pressure cooker...

  5. I'm also from a Canto background and haven't attempted watercress soup yet. I really miss it too so will have to give it a go in my pressure cooker. I made a herbal pork bone soup (dates, bark I don't know the name of, goji etc) and wasn't sure if the NZ bf would like it... but I came back the next day for leftovers and it was gone :)

    1. I think my mum makes a similar herbal pork bone soup, it always smells strange but is quite refreshing when you drink it so no wonder your bf enjoyed it!