Dong gua tang (Chinese Winter Melon Soup) is a light yet satisfying soup for cold Winter nights.
Did you know that we can grow winter melon squash here in Malaysia?
I saw it growing at a friend’s house here in Kuching. She told me that actually, winter melon grows quite wild here. Her vine had started at one end of her fence, given her about 6 fruit and then looked like it was about to die. But then new green shoots continued to come out and now half her fence has dying brown leaves while the other half has new leaves with another 5-6 fruit hanging from vine. Astounding!
What the Heck is That?
One day we were in our backyard inspecting the pandan plant on one side of the yard and the curry tree arching over from our neighbor’s yard on the other side. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a vine creeping among the branches of the tree, and saw this melon hanging on it! It was about the size of a medium watermelon. (I didn’t yet know that it was a winter melon.)
I struck up a conversation with my neighbour one day and asked her about the vine and she confirmed that, yes indeed, it was a winter melon. Two days later, while I was coming out of my house, she ran up to me and handed me half a melon that she had recently harvested from that vine. Sweet! That half melon was perfect for making pot of winter melon soup.
No Soup for Me!
Now, believe it or not, I had never cooked winter melon soup before. See, I’m not really a soup person. Strange I know.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I sweat a lot when drinking hot soups in a hot country. When I left Malaysia and went to live in the US, I enjoyed drinking soups in Fall and Winter when the heat from that bowl of soup really helped to warm me up.
Well, now I’m back in Malaysia where it is HOT! Especially here in Kuching. But maybe age is catching up with me because I am beginning to enjoy soups a bit more. When my neighbour handed this winter melon to me, I was happy to make this soup. What’s more, after I made it, I actually drank two bowls, sweat dripping from my forehead and all! Maybe it’s knowing that this fruit was home-grown or maybe it was the taste of the winter melon soup itself. Whatever it was, it was truly satisfying and comforting.
Making the soup itself is pretty easy. You can make the broth for the soup using chicken bones but I chose pork bones as I had them handy at the time. If you use pork bones, do this one additional step to help you to get a nice, clear soup—bring bones to a vigorous boil, then dump out the water and rinse the bones a few times before refilling with clean water and bringing the bones to a boil again. This technique of first boiling the bones and dumping out the water helps to give you a stock that is not murky from all the scum rising from the pork bones.
Once I’d done that, I added the dried scallops, dates and ginger to the stock and let them simmer with the pork bones for about an hour. While that was happening, I sliced off the skin of the winter melon, then cut it into chunks.
I already had some boiled peanuts handy so I decided to add that in. I also added some reconstituted shiitake mushrooms to enrich the stock (not too many otherwise it would overwhelm the delicate flavor of the winter melon).
Chinese Winter Melon Soup Recipe
1/3 lb (250g) pork spare ribs or neck bones, cut into chunks
10 cups water
1/2 a medium winter melon, cut into large chunks (about 4-5 cups worth)
1/4 cup dried scallops
10-12 dried red dates
1 inch ginger, sliced thickly
2-4 dried shiitake, reconstituted
1/2 cup boiled peanuts (optional)
salt and some chicken bouillon to taste
dash of white pepper
1. Put pork bones in a large pot and fill with water, enough to cover pork. Bring to a boil and let boil vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and dump water. Rinse out pork bones until not much remaining scum can be seen (a little bit will always remain, it’s ok, no need to be too perfectionist about it—after all we’re not Tampopo!).
2. Return pork bones to pot with 10 cups of water. Bring to boil and as soon as it come to a boil, lower heat to a simmer.
3. Add ginger slices, red dates, scallops, and shiitake mushrooms and simmer for an hour. Season with a little bit of salt.
Adding Scallops to the Soup Stock
5. Season with chicken bouillon (about 1/2 tsp) and salt to taste. I always like to season my soups at the end because that gives time for all the flavors to develop and that is when I know what is still lacking. If you season too early, you might find yourself tempted to add more seasoning than it needs as the ingredients might not have released all its wonderful flavors yet.
Finish the soup with a dash of white pepper. If you want, you can also add a little bit of sesame oil. Serve in individual soup bowls and enjoy with rice and other dishes.
I just winged the recipe using my own instincts. If this is not the way you make your winter melon soup, please feel free to share yours with me. But I liked how mine turned out—the soup was very tasty, yet delicate. I can’t quite describe it in English—clear and light seems to be the best way to describe it, I guess. The addition of scallops and dates combined with the winter melon gave the soup sweetness while the pork bones and mushrooms added savoriness. The sliced ginger added some depth and heat and gave this soup that warmth to contrast with the coolness of the winter melon.
Quite a simple soup but thoroughly satisfying. Find yourself some winter melon and make this Chinese soup for yourself. It’s a wonderful soup for those days when you just want something comforting without being too heavy. And for those of you facing very cold temps, this soup will deliver warmth and satisfaction to take away that chill from your bones.