Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour SoupCooks Illustrated just published (Jan-Feb 2006, issue #78) an article by Rebecca Hays breaking down “Hot and Sour Soup at Home” as only they can do. They also claim to have turned it into “a 20-minute dish.”

I recently had a bit of surplus pork loin on-hand, and a pot of fresh chicken broth, so I went ahead and made a pot, something I hadn’t done in probably twenty years. The last time I made this dish I used a recipe either from The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee or The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: Chinese, Greece, Rome by Jeff Smith. Since both books are so old, I’ve reproduced those recipes below.

I first remember tasting this soup, which hits my affinity for sour foods square on the nail head, at one of our family’s many forays to Joyce Chen’s restaurant near Fresh Pond in Cambridge in the 1970s. I clearly remember eating many exotic and delicious meals — including a whole fish on a platter we picked at with chop sticks — at this restaurant which was NOTHING like South Pacific, the local American Chinese/Polynesian restaurant near our house in Newton. Joyce Chen had a cooking show on the local PBS (following Julia Child’s success), and her restaurant served very little sweet and syrup-y, but a lot of hot and spicy dishes that seemed “authentic.” That included this thick glossy brown soup that featured a myriad of exotic vegetable chuncks, plus a few bits of meat. Hot but not red hot, sour but savory as well, this became one of the dishes I looked forward to ordering every time we visited. Since then I’ve sampled a lot of different versions at a lot of “Chinese” restaurants, and mostly been disappointed.

As I recall, I first made it for Alison and my Mom when we lived with her on Harrison Street the year before we moved to Maine, and it took an extensive shopping visit to the asian grocery in Newtonville to get all the ingredients. I can’t specifically remember which recipe I used, but given that The Frug’s book had just been published, and was a big hit in my family (Marcus was cooking his way through it in Jerusalem at that time), it was likely that recipe. I can only recall that it tasted pretty close to what I remembered, but it wasn’t quite as good as Joyce Chen’s…

The Chinese Cookbook, published in 1972, is a wonderful book from the days before celebrity chefs. Although if there was a celebrity chef at the time, it was Craig Claiborne who was the restaurant critic and food writer for the New York Times, and he looks quite jaunty in the photo on the back with his unbuttoned denim shirt and a colorful scarf tied around his neck. Clearly these recipes are not Claiborne’s, and he says as much in the introduction, though I’m sure he helped Lee convert them for Ameican ingredients, proportions, and techniques.

All three recipes use ground white pepper as the “hot” ingredient because it “delivers direct spiciness, but doesn’t leave a lingering burn in its wake” according to Hays. Claiborne does include a traditional ingredient of lily buds (note to self — could we harvest and dry our own??), but both Hayes and Frug substitute julienned bamboo shoots which “closely approximated the musky, sour flavor of lily buds” according to Hays. Claiborne and Frug include tree/cloud ear mushrooms among other mushrooms in the soup, but Hayes substitutes fresh shiitake caps.

Our local organic mushroom farm (more like a mushroom laboratory, though) has been goofing around by growing some exotic varieties lately and selling them at the Belfast Coop. When I shopped for the other ingredients of the soup, I saw black trumpet mushrooms being offered, which aren’t exactly tree/cloud ears or wood ears, but I think of them having that deep “woodsy” mushroom flavor that I also associate with the mushrooms in this soup, so I got those instead of fresh shiitake.

Hays delivers two patented CI “ah hah” technical revelations in this recipe: black Chinese vinegar, and the “Mysterious Powers of Cornstarch” specifically when added to added egg drop. Chinese black vinegar is more authentic, and has a lower acidity that typical European vinegars, and because of that you use more to get the same “sour” effect, which means it can also contribute more flavor to the dish. Because the vinegar can be hard to find, Hayes does search for an American substitute, and comes up with a combination of red wine vinegar and balsamic vineger in less than half the volume she calls for if using the black vinegar. I didn’t find Chinese black vinegar at the Belfast Coop, so I used the substitution.

Cornstarch added to beaten eggs BEFORE being drizzled into the soup apparently “keeps proteins relaxed” whatever that means. CI provides an illustration for this showing cooked egg protein without cornstarch (kinky) and with cornstarch (wavy) to make their point. I didn’t notice a significant difference to the final, cooked egg bits in the soup, but I’ll take their word for it.

One minor CI “ah-hah” is to press the tofu before cubing and adding to the soup. When I tried to do this, the plate on top of the tofu cake kept tipping the weight off, and after a while, the cake split under the pressure, so I’m not sure how much firmer that tofu got. I did not notice a “firmer, cleaner tasting cube” that Hays promised.

Once you have prepared all the ingredients for the soup, it’s pretty quick and straightforward to prepare — that might have taken twenty minutes. Heat the broth, add bamboo shoots and mushrooms to cook, add tofu and pork, when pork is cooked (about 2 minutes) thicken with cornstarch, add seasonings, bring broth to a bubble, then turn off heat, drizzle in egg, return to heat, when it bubbles again, serve.

Alison liked the CI recipe I made because it wasn’t “too” hot or “too” sour. I thought it was good, and very reminicent of the restaurant version, but I needed slightly more punch, so I took The Frug’s direction by adding a drop or two of sesame oil to my bowl of soup, along with a little chili garlic paste. That worked nicely.

Would I make this again? Yes, but only after finding a bottle of the black vinegar, as well as adjusting the timing to include prep time for the ingredients. An hour is more realistic — an hour and a half is pretty safe. Because it’s “thrown” together all at once, it is also one of those meals where the ingredients could all be gathered “mise-en-place” ahead of time, and as long as you remember to heat up the stock a half an hour ahead of time, you could offer this at a dinner party by putting it together just before it’s to be served. And if you live in a rural outpost, far away (in distance as well as time) from Joyce Chen’s restaurant, it may be your best bet for real good Hot and Sour goodness.

Hot and Sour Soup
The Chinese Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Virginia Lee

One of the most appetizing soups in the Chinese repertoire — and one that creates appetite with its seductive blend of hot and sour — is called simply Hot and Sour Soup. It contains two kinds of mushrooms (fungi, if you will), shredded pork, and bean curd. The hot comes from white pepper, incidentally — not hot oil — and the sour comes from vinegar.

2 large dried black mushrooms
6 tree ear mushrooms
4 dried tiger lily stems
1 Tbsp. peanut, vegtable, or corn oil
1/4 cup finely shredded pork
1 Tbsp light soy sauce
1/2 cup finely shredded bamboo shoots
5 cups Rich Chicken Broth
salt to taste
2 to 3 tabelspoons red wine vinegar, according to taste
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 Tbsp cornstarch
3 Tbsp water
1 1/2 pads fresh white bean curd, cut into thin strips
2 eggs lightly beaten
1 Tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp freshly ground white pepper
2 Tbsp chopped scallions, green part included, for garnish
minced fresh coriander for garnish

Place the mushrooms, tree ears, and tiger lily stems in a mixing bowl. Pour very hot or boiling water over them and let stand 15 to 30 minutes, then drain

Cut off and discard the stems fo the mushrooms and the harder part of the tree ears. Cut both the mushrooms and the tree ears into thin slices. With the fingers, shred the tiger lily stems, and if they are very long cut them in half.

Heat a wok or a skillet, and when it is hot add the vegetable oil and shredded pork. Stir to separate the strands of pork and add the light soy sauce. Add the mushrooms, tree ears, tiger lily stems, and bamboo shoots. Stir quickly about 1 minute and add the chicken broth and salt. Stir in the vinegar and dark soy sauce.

Combine the cornstarch and water and stir into the simmering broth. When slightly thickened, add the bean curd, bring to a boil, and turn off the heat for about 30 seconds, to let the broth cool a bit so the eggs won’t overcook when they are added.

Add the sesame oil and pepper and stir to blend. Pour the soup into a hot soup tureen and gradually add the eggs in a thin stream, stirring in a circular motion. Sprinkle with the chopped scallion and the minced fresh coriander, if desired. Serve immediately.

Hot and Sour Soup
The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines: Chinese, Greece, Rome by Jeff Smith

This is a classic coming from the northern regions. You will be surprised at how simple this is to prepare…and better than what you find in most of the American/Chinese neighborhood restaurants. I make this for my sons on occasion, and it is always a great hit.

6 cups Chinese Chicken Soup Stock
2 Tbsp light soy sauce
1/4 pound lean pork, cut into 1/4 inch dice
6 dried Chinese mushrooms, soaked for 3 hours, drained, and cut julienne
3/4 tsp ground white pepper or more to taste
1/4 cup white vinegar, more or less to taste
5 Tbsp cornstarch mixed with 5 Tbsp water
salt, if necessary
1/2 cup bamboo shoots
1/4 cup dried black fungus (cloud ears) soaked for 1 hour, drained, and shredded
1 cake bean curd, cut into 1/4 inch cubes
4 eggs beaten

cooked ham, cut into slivers
green onions, chopped
sesame oil to taste, a few drops
grated carrot
fresh ground black pepper to taste
garlic and red chili paste (optional, for bigger HOT than white and black pepper alone)

Bring the stock to a simmer and add the soy, pork, and mushrooms. Simmer for 10 minutes, add the pepper and vinegar, and thicken with the cornstarch mixed with water. Taste for seasonings and add the bamboo, fungus, and bean curd. Bring to a simmer againand pour in the eggs in a very thin stream over the surface of the soup. Count to ten and stir a few times very slowly. Egg threads will have formed. Add the garnishes to the pot and serve. You may wish to add additional vinegar. You may wish to add more fresh ground black pepper as well.

3 thoughts on “Hot and Sour Soup

  1. In the past few years, I’ve been using Madhur Jaffrey’s A Taste of the Far East recipe for Hot & Sour Soup. It’s okay, but not great, and Carol thinks it’s too hot when I make it the way I like. I totally forgot about the Three Ancient Cuisines book until I checked it for guidence in the Mom’s Chop Suey post. Gosh, its great! Goes to show… newer cookbook trumps older cookbook… just because.


  2. Hi, can I use part of the info found in this post if I put a link back to your blog?


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