Chicken and Cucumber Soup

Chicago’s Chinatown was never exactly the centre of the great Chinese empire. We had a small Chinese community, perhaps a few thousand people. But as I grew up, I was always surprised at the diversity and variety of Chinese ingredients and foods available within that narrow circle.

For example, we were delighted when fresh water chestnuts were available. They came from Hong Kong via San Francisco. We acted like deprived refugees or exiles, happy to see the well-remembered fruits of the homeland. Everyone rushed to buy whatever authentic ingredients had arrived, even at exorbitant prices. People were willing to pay for that taste of China, which made them feel closer to the homeland.

One popular vegetable that made rare appearances at our dinner table was fuzzy or hairy melon. As a child, I loved to play with the melon before my mother would peel it for soup. In season, it had a wonderful refreshing texture and taste. Because the melon was not always available, my mother would often substitute cucumber in this unusual chicken soup. It did not taste the same to my mother as the fuzzy-melon version of her childhood, but, then, we weren’t living in China either. However, if you are able to find fuzzy melon, you can use the same proportion as cucumber in this recipe.

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  • 225 g (8 oz) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 egg white
  • teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon cornflour
  • 450 g (1 lb) cucumbers (2 medium-sized)
  • 1 litre ( pints) Chinese Chicken Stock or store-bought fresh stock
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped spring onions


Cut the chicken into thin slices about 5 cm (2 in) long and 3 mm ( in) wide and toss them with the egg white, ½ teaspoon of salt and cornflour. Let sit in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

Peel the cucumbers, halve them and remove the seeds with a teaspoon. Cut the cucumber into 2.5 cm (1 in) cubes, sprinkle with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and put them in a colander to drain for 20 minutes. This removes the excess moisture from the cucumber. Next rinse the cucumber cubes in cold running water and blot them dry with kitchen paper.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch the chicken slices for 2 minutes, until they are slightly firm and white. Drain the chicken and set aside.

Just before you are ready to eat, bring the chicken stock to a simmer and season it with the soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and sugar. Toss in the cucumber and simmer for 3 minutes, then finally toss in the chicken. Bring the soup back to simmering point, add the spring onions and serve at once.