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Silky, Savory-Sweet Chinese Corn and Chicken Soup

By Sandra Wu Published

Canned cream-style corn has long been the foundation of this Chinese American classic. My version stays true to the soup’s homestyle appeal but takes a fresh approach.

When I was a child, my mom often made what we called “cream corn soup” as a quick, belly‑warming supplement to go along with our usual meals of rice and stir-fries. Like many immigrant Chinese cooks who prepared similar versions of this dish, she would crack open a can of cream-style corn and heat it in a pot with some water before stirring in a beaten egg that would set into wispy threads suspended in the silky, viscous liquid. At the table, we’d pass around the white pepper to shake on as much as we liked. The dish came together in minutes, nearly as easy to prepare as the Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle soup that shared space in our pantry with the fleet of canned corn.

Ours was a stripped-down version of the now-classic Chinese American corn and chicken soup that is commonly referred to as ji rong yu mi tang in Mandarin or gai yong suk mai geng in Cantonese and that likely got its start in Asia, not the United States. (For more information on the history of the dish, see “Trade History Behind Chinese Corn Soup.”) A hearty variant of egg drop soup, it typically combines chicken broth, canned cream-style corn, and a cornstarch slurry that makes the consistency velvety‑thick. Then it’s bulked up with thin ribbons of egg as well as bits of chicken and sometimes ham (or crab in place of both meats, for upscale occasions) and garnished with sliced scallion.

“The Chinese cook is sort of masterful at putting together so many components that add flavor and texture, and yet you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.” –Chinese culinary authority Grace Young

My family loved the sweetness and creamy body of the canned corn version, and I think of it fondly. But some Chinese cooks also make this soup using fresh corn, and it’s an approach I’ve always wanted to try. Sweet, peak-season corn, I hoped, would lend the dish not only more vibrancy but also more flavor balance. I’ve also found it tricky to produce evenly delicate egg ribbons and thought this would be a good opportunity to dig into the technique.

Pureed kernels suffuse the broth with vibrant corn flavor and color while whole kernels add pops of sweetness.

Pure(e) Gold

Canned cream-style corn typically contains water, corn kernels, a starch of some kind (often cornstarch), plus sugar and salt—components that add up to a viscous, sweet product that, frankly, doesn’t taste much like corn. So I made it my goal to get as much corn flavor as I could from the fresh stuff, and I figured that pureeing it, as I’d seen in a handful of recipes, would be the best approach.

I cut a few cups’ worth of kernels from two to three cobs and blitzed them in a blender with a little water until the mixture was as smooth as possible, and then I pressed the puree through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any tough bits of skin. When I stirred the concentrated, golden liquid into a few cups of cornstarch-thickened chicken broth (pureed corn alone didn’t give the soup sufficiently viscous body), its vibrant flavor and color suffused the broth so that the base looked and tasted uniformly of corn.

What was lacking, though, were the sweet, juicy bursts that I love about eating fresh corn and the hearty consistency of the soup that I grew up with. Fortunately, those qualities were easy to add by stirring in a few more cups’ worth of whole kernels.

Trade History Behind Chinese Corn Soup

  • You might assume that this corn soup—a mash-up of an American canned good and Chinese tastes—was invented in stateside Chinese restaurants. But the dish probably got its start in East Asian outposts that traded with the United States. Publications including Leslie Wheeler’s The Chinese Market for American Foodstuffs (1924) and Canner/Packer (1920, vol. 51) note that China, and especially Hong Kong, was importing canned corn from the United States in the early 20th century. Anecdotally, my mother recalled my grandmother buying canned cream-style corn in Taiwan during the postwar period to make this dish, and author Grace Young, whose corn soup recipe appears in her book The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen (1999), learned to make it from an aunt who lived in Hong Kong. Young speculates that it was invented around the mid-20th century, when canned corn was in its heyday. “Eating an American canned good like fruit cocktail and creamed corn was a luxury,” she said, noting that the appeal was ironic for a culture that places high value on fresh food. Whatever its actual origins, this creamy, sweet-savory soup became a Chinese American classic with global appeal.

A Modicum of Meat

Besides its role in the broth, chicken is a bit player in this dish—and that is by design. Acclaimed cookbook author Grace Young explained to me that Chinese cooks often add a tiny bit of meat to soups as a way to add savory backbone and a little protein and texture, and its effect is meant to be subtle.   

“When you drink the soup, you might not even notice that there’s chicken,” said Young. “The Chinese cook is sort of masterful at putting together so many components that add flavor and texture, and yet you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.”

Many recipes call for either marinating the chicken or using a form of velveting by coating the meat in a mixture of cornstarch, rice wine, egg whites, and seasonings before cooking the meat through in the soup. (Velveting is a classic Chinese technique that seasons and insulates the meat so that it cooks up tender and silky.) I simply tossed a few ounces of chopped-up thigh meat (my preference to leaner white meat for its moistness and richer flavor) in a mixture of soy sauce, cornstarch, water, and baking soda. The salty, umami-rich soy sauce seasoned the chicken and, along with the baking soda, helped the meat stay juicy during cooking. (Baking soda is not a typical component here, but we sometimes add it to meat to raise its pH so that it’s better able to hold on to moisture.)

Per tradition, I also seasoned the dish with a couple tablespoons of chopped deli ham, which gave the soup a smoky, salty hint and helped balance its sweetness, as well as a modest amount of white pepper for a subtle earthy, floral taste.

The Egg Drop Challenge

As with many egg drop soups, the last step is to swirl beaten egg into the hot broth so that it immediately sets into tender, wispy ribbons. But there are different ways to go about the “ribboning” technique, and each method achieves a slightly different result. 

How to “Ribbon” Eggs Into the Broth

  • Thin, feathery egg ribbons—a hallmark of Chinese egg drop soups—form when raw beaten egg is streamed into hot, viscous broth. The egg protein coagulates as soon as it hits the broth, and the cornstarch-thickened liquid helps the egg ribbon hold together instead of breaking into particles and shreds. The trick is to ensure that the strands are even and delicate. Here’s my favorite method.     

     

    Holding fork in your hand and measuring cup with egg mixture in your other hand, pour mixture in slow stream through tines of fork in concentric circles over saucepan until ribbons of coagulated egg form.

Most recipes suggest continuously stirring the soup in a single direction (essentially creating a whirlpool effect) while simultaneously drizzling in the beaten egg. But this is where I’ve always gotten tripped up, finding it tricky to create consistently sized strands because the speed at which I stirred the soup affected how thick or thin the egg set up. I had an easier time simply drizzling the egg in concentric circles directly over the saucepan, which gave me strands that were more even, albeit wider and not as delicate as I wanted without the whirlpool to thin out the stream.

In an attempt to slow down the flow rate, I held a fork several inches below the stream of egg while I poured. This helped, but not quite enough. Then, as it happened, I had a conversation with Brandon Jew, chef/owner of San Francisco’s Mister Jiu’s, Mamahuhu, and Moongate Lounge and author of Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown (2021). He also grew up eating and cooking corn soup and suggested a subtle tweak that made all the difference: adding a little water and vinegar to the eggs to thin out the strands so that they cooked faster. I ended up adding just water, since vinegar brought a tang to the eggs that I didn’t want.

I seasoned the soup with salt and white pepper, ladled it into bowls, and sprinkled thinly sliced scallion over each portion for a pop of color and freshness. It tasted vibrant and nicely balanced between the sweetness of the corn and the savory backbone of the chicken and ham—a welcome leap from the one-note sweetness of the canned version I grew up with. But the belly‑warming, homey vibe was still very much intact.

Recipe Chinese Corn and Chicken Soup

Canned cream-style corn has long been the foundation of this Chinese American classic. My version stays true to the soup’s homestyle appeal but takes a fresh approach.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.