December 19th, 2017

A couple questions regarding Chinese Soup for the Gods...

The following (downright minimalist) recipe is from How to Cook and Eat in Chinese (first published in 1945) by Buwei Yang Chao--which as far as I know, is the first American Chinese cookbook targeted to English-speaking non-Chinese, and codified a lot of the terminology; for example, it was she who introduced the terms "pot-sticker" and "stir-fry." The author's remarks are italicized:

When you are absolutely out of soups, you can always make shên-hsien-t'ang, Soup for the Gods. Since it is too simple to count as a dish, I am numbering it 15.0.
(Chapter 15 dealt with soups.)

6 cups boiling water
2 tb-sp. soy sauce
Some dozen 1/2-inch sections of garlic shoots or 1 scallion cut to 1/8-inch
sections
1 t-sp. sesame oil or salad oil or lard

Put seasonings into a bowl and pour boiling water in it.

Soup for the Gods is a good drink to go with rich foods, such as Eggs Stir Rice
(what nowadays is termed "fried rice" in English.)

Not having brought up with traditional Chinese cookery and its surrounding cultural context, I've long wondered a couple things about the above concoction (which does serve as a useful quick-and-dirty soup base):

1. Why is it called "Soup for the Gods"? Is the name ironic, is it used in ritual offerings, or just what?

2. Just about every iteration of Soup for the Gods I've found online also includes ginseng:

https://recipeland.com/recipe/v/soup-for-the-gods-41328

http://www.recipesource.com/soups/soups/12/rec1258.html

http://www.cookingindex.com/recipes/74909/shen-hsien-tang-soup-for-the-gods.htm

The third link above cites The Ginseng Book (1973, Ruka Publications) by Louise Veninga; this would've been during an era when a lot of non-Chinese Americans exalted ginseng as a miracle substance that's Good For You and should be consumed at every opportunity (a characteristic product of the period was Ginseng Up, a root-beer-flavored ginseng-infused pop sold in health-food stores.) (See also the current adulation of things like kale, açaí berries, quinoa, and goji.)

(It may also be significant that a paperback edition of How to Cook and Eat in Chinese had come out in 1972.)

Now, according to Dr. Chao, one use of Soup for the Gods is as a light drinking soup/neutral palate-cleanser between banquet courses; I have difficulty believing that a powerful traditional medicinal herb would be added indiscriminately to such--particularly without specifying the type of ginseng, which would be an important consideration in Traditional Chinese Medicine; Chinese, Korean, and American ginseng have different effects (and the last is a different species entirely.)

So: how authentic an option is the ginseng?

Sources I've already consulted include:

Google searches on "soup for the gods" and "Chinese soup for the gods", including and specifically excluding "ginseng"; the only sources I've found that reference a minimal soy-sauce broth but not the ginseng cite Chao (whom I'm inclined to accord the weight of authority as a native of the culture in question, writing before that particular American food fad took hold.)

A large number of English-language Chinese cookbooks, most notably The Chinese Kitchen by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo (a first-generation Chinese-American born in Sun Tak, a farming suburb of Canton) and Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young, an ABC brought up in San Francisco's Chinatown. Neither work mentions Soup for the Gods, although both stress traditional Chinese cookery and the latter describes a number of traditional Chinese medicinal soups.

A first-generation Chinese-American of my acquaintance who grew up in World War II-era Nanking and Shanghai. She came from a cosmopolitan and Christianized family who didn't observe a lot of old folkways, and she'd never heard of Soup for the Gods; nonetheless, she was happy to tell me (more, honestly, than I was prepared to retain) about ginseng, particularly the important distinction between varieties mentioned above.