Duck and pickle soup

Duck and pickle soup

Duck and pickle soup

My grandmother would sometimes cook this soup when I was growing up. We had the traditional set up of parents and grandparents living together in the same household. Returning home from school in the afternoon, inevitably my grandmother would have magicked up another pot of soup which would be simmering on the stove, gurgling away with promise for four hours. Every night of my childhood, I had soup in some form or another. As a result, Chinese soup endures in my life as a symbol of family and home.

Chinese families often aren’t very physically demonstrative and I’ve read that physical touch helps overall health and longevity, particularly for the young and elderly. Losing my beloved grandfather when I was 11 years old, I resolved to hug my grandmother often to make her stay forever. It’s poignant now, looking back on my 11 year old self; I believed so fervently that I could make the impossible, possible. If only I had held onto that confidence, I could have conquered the world by now! When I hug my tiny grandmother these days, she breathes in deeply and I feel her whole body relax, with her head sometimes slowly dropping to rest on my shoulder. She’s turning 103 in August this year, so who’s to say my hug treatment hasn’t worked after all? The fact she eats a lot of fish, never drank or smoked and avoids sweet and fatty foods may have contributed a little too.

When I was living in London about 7 years ago, I cooked this soup a few times and shared it with my housemates and yes, they enjoyed it. But I haven’t really made it much since. One of the benefits of living with others is sharing food. Sharing a bathroom, however? Not so much. These days, I regularly bake biscuits and take them into work. The feeding urge seems impossible to shake but duck and pickle soup is a bit of a harder sell than a cookie.

Zha cai pickle - mustard green stem

Zha cai pickle – mustard green stem

This soup is made with a Chinese pickle named zha cai which is made from a Chinese mustard green stem. Heavily salted and rubbed with chilli, the pickle is traditionally stored somewhere cool and matured in earthenware pots. You can purchase it from Asian grocery stores; vacuum packed, canned or freshly cured. The fresh kind is harder to find but the other varieties are fine too.

The list of ingredients is simple with just four components; duck, pickle, ginger and water. You’ll notice that I blanch the meat prior to cooking the soup. This is a common Chinese cooking technique that reduces the soup scum that can appear and results in a cleaner tasting and clearer stock. Zha cai is very salty so if you prefer, soak for an hour in cold water before using.

My mother most likely wouldn’t approve but I usually serve it as a noodle soup, so it’s eaten as a meal in itself. Chinese soup are usually consumed as part of a larger meal and this may be because many are thin and more like a broth so wouldn’t fill you up for very long. For noodle soup, I like to use a kind of rice vermicelli that cooks up more al dente and retains a bit of bite.

A bowl of this soup blooms in my heartspace like my grandmother’s response to a hug. I relax, breathe in deeply and all feels right in the world again.

Rice vermicelli that cooks up al dente

Rice vermicelli that cooks up al dente

Feeds: 8 people for a small bowl of soup, 6 people for noodle soup
Start cooking: 3 hours before serving

Duck and pickle soup


  • 3 x duck marylands (or one whole duck)
  • 300 grams x zha cai
  • Thumb sized piece x fresh ginger
  • Water


  1. Scrape the skin off the ginger and bruise with a heavy knife. Cut the zha cai in half and rinse the pickle under water. If you don’t like heavily seasoned food, you may want to soak the pickle in cold water for an hour first to ease the saltiness.
  2. Wash the duck meat thoroughly, discarding the skin and fat.
  3. Heat up a litre of water in a large stock pot until boiling. Add the duck, bring back to a boil and then simmer covered for 10 minutes.
  4. Once the meat has been blanched, take it out of the pot and rinse under cold water. Discard the boiled water and rinse the pot, making sure it’s clean.
  5. Place 3 litres of water in the pot and return to the stove, adding the ginger, zha cai and rinsed duck. Simmer the soup ingredients for at least 2 hours, ideally for 3+ hours.
  6. After 2 hours, remove the duck pieces and shred the duck meat off the bone. Thickly slice the pickle. Return the meat to the pot. There will be some fat and a small amount of scum on the surface which will need to be skimmed off. The soup will be seasoned from the zha cai so won’t need any additional salt.

To eat as a noodle soup…

  1. You’ll need some dried rice vermicelli noodles and a quarter of a green cabbage.
  2. Cook some thin rice vermicelli noodles until just tender. Drain the noodles and divide into serving bowls.
  3. Julienne the pickle, finely shred the green cabbage and place over the noodles.
  4. Heat up the soup and pour into the bowls, making sure every portion has some duck meat. Serve with freshly sliced chilli if desired.