Shanghai’s Scarlet Vegetable Elixir

Shanghai’s Scarlet Vegetable Elixir: A Glimpse into History

Each time I prepare Shanghai’s scarlet vegetable Elixir, it feels like I’m being transported into a black and white movie scene. I imagine suave individuals, lounging in opulent European cafes nestled in the core of vintage Shanghai, gracefully relishing this elixir alongside some oven-fresh bread.

The Soup’s Historical Footprints

The early 20th century saw a cultural influx in bustling metropolises like Shanghai, Beijing, and Harbin. As diverse communities from across the globe settled in, they seamlessly integrated their architectural marvels, culinary wonders, and European etiquettes.

Sipping coffee became a trend, and relishing Western cuisines was a luxury only the elite could afford. The common populace could merely dream from a distance.

This tantalizing Shanghai-Style Red Vegetable Soup likely draws its roots from European vegetable concoctions, often made from beets, potatoes, and cabbage. However, the Chinese rendition embraced tomatoes, a choice still popular among chefs today. Every time I serve this soup, it feels like a tribute to those cinematic moments of the yesteryears.

Grandmother’s Timeless Legacy

This savory recipe has a deep personal connection. My grandmother, a native of Shanghai during this fusion era, introduced me to this culinary masterpiece. She also shared a scrumptious pork chop recipe that remains my all-time favorite.

Over the years, I’ve tweaked her method slightly, cutting down on tomatoes to ensure their tartness doesn’t overwhelm the dish. The oxtails introduce a profound beefy essence, eliminating the need for butter. And here’s the best part: once the oxtails are prepped, it’s a smooth, uninterrupted journey to a steaming pot of soup. A delightful choice for a chilly evening!


  • 2 pounds oxtails
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 large onions
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 3 petite tomatoes (~12 ounces/340g, coarsely diced)
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 10 cups water (2.4L)
  • 2 chunky carrots (~12 ounces/340g)
  • A quarter of a cabbage (~12 ounces, coarsely diced)
  • 5 bay leaves
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 pound potatoes (450g, approx. 2 sizable potatoes), peeled and chunked

Steps to Elixir:

  1. Gently rinse oxtails and pat them arid. Over a medium flame, use a heavy-bottomed pot and heat oil to lightly sear the oxtails.
  2. As the oxtails attain a golden hue, toss in the sliced onions and crushed garlic. Stir until the onions are tender.
  3. Dice the tomatoes while the onions simmer. Introduce them to the pot once the onions soften. Make a small clearing in the center, placing the tomato paste there. Stir until the tomatoes melt into the mix and the oil adopts a reddish tint.
  4. Pour in the water and hike up the heat. As the water nears boiling, add the carrots, cabbage, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Once it boils, lower the heat and let it simmer for about an hour.
  5. Post simmering, integrate the potato chunks. Bring to a boil again, then simmer for another half hour or until potatoes are soft. Adjust salt levels if needed.
  6. Here’s a secret: soups tend to mature and taste richer a day after. So, should you have extras, freeze them. It’s a delight waiting to be rediscovered!

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