Hot and sour soup sounds so deceptively simple. Hot. Sour. How difficult can that be? Well, plenty, at least for this home cook. In the past when I’ve made the soup, it’s turned out, ehh. A few problems emerged: the delicate balance of hot and sour was off, or the color was not quite right, or there was a general lack of deep, rich flavor. Basically, my hot and sour was not great, not terrible, certainly nothing I’d be proud to serve to other people. Just… okay.
It’s always made me a little crazy that as a Chinese-American, I haven’t mastered this signature soup.
But then, neither have many Chinese restaurants, and they make this stuff every day. The situation is especially dire at Chinese takeout spots, whose representatives I’m convinced are all meeting in some clandestine location to pass around the same awful hot and sour recipe, that starts off, How to make a hot and sour soup that’s neither hot nor sour.
So what makes for an exceptional hot and sour soup? For me it boils down to these essential elements: Rich, velvety dark color; a smattering of tofu, wood ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots and shredded pork; a zing of vinegar that penetrates the nostrils; peppery heat that intensifies at the back of the throat.
And if it takes the rest of my life, I’m gonna perfect this soup, dammit.
I’m getting closer, pulling together components from different recipes. This resulting recipe works pretty well.
(Note: I left out the pork, but if you use it, cut some pork tenderloin into shreds and marinate it in sherry, sesame oil and a pinch of sugar.)
4 cups chicken stock
1 tbsp minced ginger
1/2 cup shredded bamboo shoots
1/2 cup wood ears
1 block soft tofu, cut into strips
4 scallions, minced
3 tbsp cider vinegar
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp chili oil
1/2 tsp ground black pepper (or more depending on taste)
2 tbsp cornstarch
1 egg, beaten
First, hydrate the wood ears, which come dried in a package. They go by different names in Asian groceries, like wood ears, cloud ears, tree ears, and the most unappealing, black fungus.
Soak them in warm water for about 20 minutes until softened. They’ll expand in the water like gummy bears, so a small handful goes a long way. (Am I the only one who put gummy bears in water as a kid just to watch them double in size?)
Combine the vinegar through cornstarch in a bowl.
Bring the stock to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, and add the ginger, pork (if using), tofu, bamboo shoots and wood ears.
Bring the liquid back to a boil, pour in the vinegar mixture and stir. The soup should start to thicken (but not too much) from the cornstarch.
Here’s the fun part. Turn off the heat, and kind of stream the beaten egg into the soup while stirring with a chopstick. If you do it right, it should form these little strands.
Sprinkle in the chopped scallion and give the soup a taste. Needs more sour? Add a splash of vinegar. Needs more hot? Add a touch of chili oil and extra black pepper.
I’m liking the balance of this recipe a lot, and the soup has a nice glossy sheen, but even still, there’s a last little oomph that’s missing — that depth of flavor you taste in a hot and sour soup at a good Chinese restaurant. I’m not sure what the secret is — maybe a bit of garlic? The quality of the chicken stock?
The tinkering continues.