“Peasant” Turnip Soup

This was the challenge I faced growing up with learning to cook anything too rustic and simple: Time and again, I’d be taken aback by something that my mom had just thrown together. Wow, this is really good, I would say, tasting an eggdrop soup with crunchy scallion bits floating about. Or a stir-fry of julienned potatoes with a dash of white pepper, the starch suspending the sticks in a light, opaque sauce. Or, most recently, this clear soup with soft cubes of turnip and a background smokiness of sparerib bones.

“This is just peasant food,” my mom would insist, more annoyed than bewildered.

Over the years, I’ve been conditioned to drop the question, “How do you make it?” from my vocabulary when it comes to these types of dishes. It would invariably be greeted with scowls and claims that there was “no way,” or that it was not really a dish, or else indirect answers such as, “You just make it when there’s nothing else to eat.” Instead, I’ve learned that all one can do is stand back and watch.

spare parts: spareribs with bones flavor the light broth

So that’s how I’ve come to discover that water, turnips, some bones and a bit of broth make the perfect winter soup. Soothing and delicate, it’s great for sloshing together with leftover rice. My mom confessed that when she last cooked this for us around Christmas, she had wanted to make wintermelon soup in the same vein (wintermelon being much more subtle to the palate as well as in texture, and thus considered a little more luxurious). However, the wintermelon at the grocery that day didn’t look as fresh as the turnips. So, you could say that this soup is something that you just make when there’s nothing else (and wintermelon) to eat.

I don’t know if there’s an inherent embarrassment to cooking something so pedestrian. Perhaps I shouldn’t shame my elders by sharing this recipe right now. But I still think that when something tastes good, it tastes good. When it’s this cheap, simple and healthy as well, all the better to it.

the completed non-recipe

Any turnip will turn out a good broth for this recipe, whether it’s one of the long, Asian varieties or a round, purple-skinned one. The trick with this recipe is to cook the turnip cubes until soft and transparent, but not mushy; you don’t want to see grains floating around in the clear broth. Tasting a cube for done-ness is imperative here, and it should melt in your mouth like a soaked crouton.

“Peasant” Turnip Soup
(makes 4-6 servings)

½ lb pork spareribs with bones, trimmed of fat and cut to 1” cubes
2 lb turnips, peeled and cut to 1” cubes
3 cups water
3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
4-5 thin slices of fresh ginger
1 tablespoon vegetable or canola oil
dash of white pepper (optional)

Heat oil in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add the ginger and cook, stirring frequently, over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the spareribs and continue cooking and stirring until slightly browned, 2-3 minutes. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Let cook for 30 minutes. Remove cover and skim the top of the broth of any particles with a slotted spoon.

Add the turnip cubes and continue cooking on medium-low for about 25 minutes. Taste turnips for tenderness; when fully cooked they should be soft and mellow-flavored, but not falling apart in the soup. Cook longer if necessary. Remove ginger strips before serving as well as spareribs, if desired. Add white pepper and serve.

Health Factor

Three brownie points: Contrary to my stubborn belief that white vegetables have less nutrients, white turnips are a valuable source of many vitamins, including fiber, calcium, potassium, copper, Vitamin B6 and even Vitamin C. Peasants have much to snigger over for dining on these root vegetables, which are also low in calories. Trimming the spareribs before cooking is essential to keeping the fat content of this recipe relatively low, although I think it’s nice to have a few shiny oil slicks at the surface of the soup.

15 Responses

  1. JustNancy

    I hated this soup when I was a kid. If I saw giant daikon being pulled up in the backyard, I felt dread. Now that I’m older, I don’t mind it with a little dish of that Chinese red spicy and tart dipping sauce. Rolling the cubes of turnip in the sauce makes it a bit more exciting, as does some cilantro.

  2. saigon

    My parents make these kinds of soup with every meal. Yum! Now I’m craving it! They like to make it with a green veggie usually like spinach or baby bok choy. Definitely add cilantro (as the above comment suggested).

  3. Yvo

    I know this soup! Haha I am not the only one, judging from the comments above. I was never a fan, per se, of this soup, but I drank it, and now when I am able to get it, I savor it. I never thought how easy it must be to make. I love the “ching” (clear) aspect of it. It’s so good to drink before a meal or after! And I know exactly what you mean. My mom and dad had very different teaching styles when I was growing up, and mom’s was more like your mother’s. “Oh.. just..” and then some garble of nonsense to a non-cook. I went home a month or so ago to find a wonderful smell in the kitchen so I went looking and finally realized it came from the rice cooker, opened it up and found what looked like sticky rice or something. My mom said “I just threw some stuff in there to test the “mixed rice” option, and it worked” and it tasted so good, but there was never a hope for getting her recipe. She will just tell me she threw some stuff in it, and when I suggest ingredients, she’ll say yes, but have no idea what she did with them. And she’ll leave out whole items that are just givens. I asked her once, with a dish on the table, what she put in it, and she said “Chicken.” “What else?” “Uh… some salt. Some…” and I forget what else, but I had to prompt her before she “remembered” the garlic, the soy sauce, the slurry to thicken the sauce… When you ask her for a recipe, she might tell you a few ingredients and you have to go from there to figure out how she put it together. It’s kind of fun though, because it’s like, mystery recipe! Hahahaha.

    PS The above soup is on my list to make now; my fave is the watercress soup and this will be my 2nd go-to. Somehow I think living alone I will be cooking a lot more Chinese dishes than not…

  4. stanos

    Thanks for this entry. This is a light, tasty soup, low carbs, high in nutrient, easy to make, and inexpensive. A little goes a long way. There’s a reason why this is a staple in most real chinese kitchens.

  5. George

    This soup was perfect growing up – savory and filling.

  6. Steve

    Fantastic soul warming soup.
    I added a few crushed chiltepin from the bush outside my door for extra flavor.
    The simple life is the best life.

  7. Aliza

    i just got some turnips from a friend’s CSA and am looking for good soups to make. However, I am vegetarian and was wondering if anyone had any suggestions for an alternative to the pork spare ribs.


  8. Upaut

    As a non meat eater as well, I suggest a substitution of a spoonful of marmite, a little extra butter (or fat of your choice, maybe safflower oil), and some sliced mushrooms.

  9. Dody

    I made this soup about 15 months ago with turnips from our garden and have been craving it ever since. It is absolutely delicious! Thanks for posting it.

  10. Tom

    As a teacher in Chongqing I was given this soup occasionally at lunch when the school would give me lunch. I learned to really like it, but no one else I taught with cared for it.

    I’m excited to use a CSA box turnip for this soup tonight! June isn’t the ideal time for it, but it will still be delicious!

  11. John

    I love this soup!! I had no idea it was a Chinese invention…the first time I had it was in a little family restaurant in Tecate Mexico. They serve it there with just about any meal you order. I learned to approximate its flavor at home.
    White turnips,chicken broth,chopped green onions,a grated carrot,chopped celery,chopped cilantro,salt and pepper.No actual amounts …I just put in what looks/smells/feels right. My grown kids wanted my recipe,and I told them it’s not a recipe..it just happens!

  12. Safflower Oil

    Safflower Oil…

    […]“Peasant” Turnip Soup » Not Eating Out in New York[…]…

  13. Don

    I found this site looking for a clear soup to make from left over turkey broth and diced turnip. Earlier I’d made a cream soup from stock, turnip, onion and potato but I’m out of potato and too lazy to go to the store. Thanks. Ethnically I’m Middle Tennessean. My mother hated turnips but loved the tops.

  14. EP

    Making this peasant soup today ):
    In making the soup, we add some ‘tai tau choy’ for a distinct flavour. Turnip goes so well dipped in light soya sauce with chilli

  15. Frederick

    Very similiar to my growing up in the USA.

    We ate a bowl of turnips and pork neckbones with a side of warm buttered cornbread.

    Cheap filling and so flavourful.

    As a child I remember growing up with this meal and other cheaper but delicious offerings from the Southern USA traditions.

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