A Chinese meal is not complete without a soup. Most quick Chinese soups are thin and rather bland because such soups are for refreshing the palate in between mouthfuls of food, and also to moisten the throat and help glide rice down the gullet. Many kids and older Chinese cannot swallow their rice without spoonfuls of soup. When they were toddlers, my kids survived on good nutritious soups and bowls of rice. Simmered (usually 2 hours) Chinese soups are also thin but fortified with veggies, herbs, bones and meat into very nutritious and delicious soups. Such soups are drunk all through the meals with constant refills. Soups served at fancy banquet dinners on the other hand are always thickened with cornstarch to give them more body (and I suspect to cater to western palates) and are served as a one-off item at the beginning of 10-course dinners.
The tangy, oil-free tomato egg flower soup counters the greasy richness of meat dishes very well. Fan jeh dan hua tang, word for word, means tomato egg flower soup. The flower refers to the delicate strands of egg that float in the soup. Dan hua tang is good for emergencies when a soup is needed on the table. Only eggs and good chicken stock (make your own from chicken bones, or use instant canned stock) are required. Tomatoes are the most common ingredient to add to egg flower soup. My mom adds dried shrimps to her egg flower soups too, to give extra flavor. For a slightly richer and more substantial version, ground meat, jai chai (a preserved veggie) and thin glass noodles can be added too. Whichever way it's done, the important thing about dan hua tang is that the egg strands should be wispy and light, not clumpy and tough. To get fine wisps of egg, the beaten egg must be poured into very hot boiling soup with one hand and stirred in a circular motion with the other hand at the same time. The soup must be very boiling hot or the eggs will not set immediately and so will cloud the soup when stirred. Watch out too that the soup must not be boiled after the egg is added, or the egg will be hard. When your egg strands look like fine cirrus clouds, you have mastered the making of the egg flower soup.
Do not confuse egg flower soup with egg drop soup. A lot of Chinese menus say egg drop soup when they mean egg flower soup. Egg drop soup, as far as I know, is a European soup.
Tomato Egg Flower Soup
3 medium-sized very ripe tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
2 eggs, beaten
1 T finely cut spring onions
4 cups chicken stock (from bones or can/granules) or water
1/2 cup ground meat (chicken or beef or pork, seasoned with salt & pepper)
1/2 t salt & shakes of white pepper
1 t sesame oil (optional)
2 T cornstarch mixed with 3 T water (optional)
1. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the tomatoes. If using water, add the tomatoes, bring to a boil and add the ground meat, stirring and whisking with a fork or pair of chopsticks to separate the meat so that there are no large clumps.
2. When the soup comes to a full boil again, switch off the heat and pour the beaten egg with one hand and stir the soup quickly with a fork in circles. Don't pour too quickly or large thick ribbons of egg will form. Make sure the soup is boiling hot or it'll become cloudy. You can switch off the heat in the middle of boiling but do not boil after all the egg is in.
If you want a thicker soup, add the cornstarch mixture (adjust the amount to your liking) before adding the eggs, stirring eggs in using a fork in circular motion. Let soup come to a full boil after adding the cornstarch water, switch off the heat and add the egg, doing the same motion as described above.
3. Season the soup with salt and pepper. Sprinkle the spring onions on top. Drizzle with sesame oil if using.