My favorite local Chinese restaurant has an incredible wonton soup. Crystal clear, yellow, and perfectly seasoned... delicious. Although the wontons are the star of the dish, I could slurp cup after cup of the delicious broth. I asked the owner about the recipe. What was in it? How can I make it? Needless to say, she wasn't about to give up any ancient Chinese secrets.
Flash forward six years. Same owner, same restaurant, and same delicious soup, so asked her again as I had many, many of times before "How to you make this broth?" She rolled her eyes, lowered her voice and said, "It's just salt, msg, a little sugar and yellow food coloring." My culinary world crumbled. How could this be? No chicken? No vegetables? No spices? And to add insult to injury, fake yellow food coloring. I couldn't believe what I had just heard. She then gave me this mischievous smile and added "It's all about balance." In her defense, the wontons were the star of the soup. All that was needed was a subtle, balanced broth to allow them to float.
From a cooking perspective, this whole incident bugged the heck out of me. How could something so delicious come from 3 ingredients (I still do not believe food coloring is an ingredient). Then I kept hearing the last thing she told me.... It's all about balance. So what do we have? Salty, sweet, and umami in a pot of water. She gave me the base ingredients, now I had to find the balance. I probably made 30 or 40 batches until I came up with something that was very close to the broth used in the restaurant. Oftentimes I would make 3 or 4 gallons in separate pots so I could tweak the recipe in each pot and test them side by side. Sometimes I would pickup up a quart of the takeout soup so that I could compare my version to the baseline. Every batch started with one gallon of tap water.
If you want the most basic liquid that you can substitute as broth here it is: 1 gallon water, 2 TBS kosher salt, 4 tsp sugar, 1/8 tsp msg, and 4 drops yellow food coloring. Don't scoff, it took me six years of begging and 3 months of testing to get that ratio. Serve this in a bowl with a few pieces of thinly sliced scallion and a pinch of white pepper and you'll be amazed. Oh, the food coloring? Call it the placebo effect. It does nothing to add flavor, it just gives the visual cue of a long simmered broth. Don't believe me? Try omitting it. Side by side tasters will pick the yellow broth every time.
My up-converted recipe. Why it works...
The salt & MSG ratio is the same, 2 TBS plus 1/8 tsp. per gallon of water. Instead of table sugar I rely on the carrot and onion to provide natural sweetness and of course flavor. The celery, ginger, and peppercorns just up the flavor. One chicken thigh provides a little chicken flavor and just enough fat to float on top of the soup while the pressure cooker extracts the maximum amount of collagen from the thigh. And the crown jewel, turmeric replaces the food coloring.