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What Is Sha Tang?

By Karize Uy
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Sha tang is a kind of soup common in China, especially in the Jiangsu and Shandong provinces. It is usually distinguishable by its thick and sticky consistency and cloudy appearance due to the starchy grains mixed in. The soup is usually flavored primarily by some kind of protein such as chicken or pheasant. Sha tang is most often enjoyed as part of a breakfast meal in Jiangsu’s Xuzhou city, where soup shops abound to provide people bowls of warm soup to start their day.

An interesting, though uncertain, account of how the Chinese soup was named involved the Qianlong Emperor, who ruled the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. During his reign, he visited Xuzhou city and was offered some soup for breakfast, after which he asked the chef what the name of the dish was. The chef misunderstood the emperor’s question to be a statement and, in deference to the royalty, immediately named the soup as “sha tang,” which is literally translated as “what soup.”

Traditionally, the primary ingredient for the sha tang would be a pheasant, probably to make use of the fowl after hunting expeditions. Millet rice is also a traditional ingredient used to thicken the soup, probably boiled simultaneously with the soup to release the rice’s starch. In time, the pheasant was replaced with chicken, and the millet rice with barley, wheat, and even a blend of different types of grains. To make the soup thicker and stickier, pieces of eel meat, seaweed, and beans can also be included. Even pig knuckles can also be boiled in the soup and removed after cooking, since these pig parts are very fatty and can give the soup a richer consistency and flavor. Bamboo shoots can also be added in the soup.

Spices also abound in a pot of sha tang, but black pepper is the main flavoring of the soup, along with some salt and soy sauce. Other spices include cardamom, onion, and ginger, sometimes even cinnamon. In many soup shops, all the ingredients are put in a big cooking pot and boiled over a fire for a prolonged time, sometimes more than five hours before the soup is served, so as to create a flavorful broth. The soup is then individually ladled in a bowl, mixed with a raw egg and a final drizzle of sesame oil. Sha tang is usually not eaten alone, but with several side dishes such as dumplings, steamed vegetables, and fried dough pieces that resemble the Spanish churros.

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