This Healthy and Comforting Dish Delivers Big Flavor
You probably know Hot and Sour soup. This stock-based medley of mushrooms, protein (often pork, chicken, or tofu), and tangy flavorings is a staple at Chinese restaurants. With spicy high notes that contrast pleasingly with sour bass notes, Hot and Sour plays a symphony on your tongue.
It’s one of my favorite soups, so I used to order it almost every time we went out for Chinese food. It took me a while to realize that I could prepare it at home. Once I really looked at recipes, though, I finally discovered how easy it is to make Hot and Sour Soup. It does require some special ingredients, but many supermarkets (and all Asian markets) carry them. And because you can make the soup the way you like it, your version is bound to be more pleasing than any restaurant’s.
So I hope that, like me, you’ll find this recipe a win-win: You’ll add a great soup to your cooking repertoire. And next time you visit a Chinese restaurant, you’ll feel free to explore some of those other soups on the menu. You know, the one’s you’ve always ignored because you just had to have Hot and Sour!
Recipe: Hot and Sour Soup
The cuisines of most East and Southeast Asian countries feature some form of Hot and Sour Soup. It’s particularly popular in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, although the composition of the soup varies from country to country.
The version we’re making originated in China. It gets its heat (spiciness) from freshly ground pepper. Tradition calls for white pepper, but you can substitute black. The “sour” part comes from vinegar, specifically black (Chinkiang) vinegar. If you don’t have this on hand, you can substitute wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar. Most Chinese restaurants in the US thicken their soup with cornstarch. I actually prefer it without the cornstarch, but I include it as an option in the recipe. Most US versions also include some beaten eggs poured into the soup and cooked just before serving. That’s not in my version, but I include information about how to do this in the Notes if it’s something you want to do.
I looked at dozens of recipes while working to formulate my own, and probably borrowed ideas from all of them. But the two most influential sources were Fuchia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty and James Peterson’s Splendid Soups.
Cooking time for this soup is only a few minutes. But you do need to prep some ingredients, including soaking and rehydrating dried mushrooms. So figure at least 45 minutes from start-to-finish when you prepare this dish.
This recipe yields 3 to 4 main-course servings, and about 8 smaller first-course servings. Leftovers will keep refrigerated in an airtight container for a few days.
- 6 to 8 medium dried black Chinese mushrooms
- ¼ cup dried tree ears (also called wood ears; about ½ ounce)
- ~20 lily stems (also called golden needles or tiger lily buds; very optional)
- 4 or 5 ounces leftover roast pork (may substitute uncooked; see Notes)
- 1 container firm tofu
- 1 8-ounce can bamboo shoots
- 5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
- 1 teaspoon light soy sauce (see Notes; most supermarket soy sauces are of the light variety)
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce (see Notes; if you don’t have dark, substitute light soy sauce — in which case you’ll be using 2 teaspoons light soy sauce, total)
- 3 tablespoons minced cilantro (optional, but tasty; you can also use some whole leaves as garnish)
- salt to taste
- freshly ground white pepper to taste (usually about a tablespoon; may substitute black pepper)
- ~2 tablespoons green ends of scallions, minced
- 4 tablespoons cornstarch (optional; I rarely use this)
- 6 tablespoons cold water (for mixing the cornstarch)
- ~6 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar (may substitute wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar)
- 1 to 2 teaspoons sesame oil, preferably toasted
- Place the dried black mushrooms, the tree ears, and the lily stems in separate bowls, and cover with boiling (or very hot) water. Let soak for 20 to 30 minutes until soft and reconstituted. Once they’re softened, you’ll drain and rinse briefly (to remove any lingering grit). Chop the mushrooms into thin strips, or into pieces about the size of a quarter. For the lily stems, cut off the hard stem end, and either cut or shred lengthwise; or tie the stem into a knot (this is shown in all of the photos, but the knot is particularly visible in the third photo – the one below this section and before the Notes).
- While the mushrooms and lily stems are soaking, cut the pork into thin strips of about an inch long and ¼ inch wide. Set aside.
- Open the tofu and cut into strips. If you wish, you can steep in gently simmering salted water for a few minutes to refresh the tofu (I usually don’t do it for this dish since putting it in the soup does more or less the same thing).
- Open the can of bamboo shoots, drain, and cut them into thin strips. Simmer in water for a couple of minutes to refresh.
- About 5 minutes before your mushrooms finish soaking, put the chicken stock in a 4-quart pot and bring to a simmer.
- Once the stock is simmering, add the mushrooms that you’ve soaked and cut up, along with the lily stems that you’ve soaked and cut up (or tied into knots), and the pork and tofu.
- Add the rice wine, soy sauce, and minced cilantro. Add salt to taste and ground white pepper to taste (you want a very spicy broth).
- Simmer for 3 minutes or so (this time is a bit flexible, but no more than 5, otherwise the flavors begin to lose their brightness). Meanwhile, mince the green scallion ends.
- If using cornstarch to thicken the soup, blend the cornstarch with cold water to form a smooth paste.
- Remove soup from heat and stir in the cornstarch (if using) and the vinegar to taste (as sour as you like).
- In each serving bowl, put a quarter teaspoon or so of sesame oil and a sprinkling of the green scallion tips. Ladle soup into serving bowls. Garnish with extra green scallion tips or cilantro leaves if desired.
- Although lily stems are traditional in Hot and Sour Soup, don’t worry if you can’t find them (or choose not to use them). They do add a bit of flavor, but just a tiny bit, so you probably won’t miss them.
- If you elect to use raw pork rather than leftover roast pork, cut it into pieces about an inch long and ¼ inch thick. Marinate in a mix of soy sauce and Shaoxing rice wine (or dry sherry) for 20 minutes or so. Then sauté with a tablespoon or so of oil for a few minutes until cooked, and add to the soup in Step 6.
- If you want to include egg in your soup, crack 1 or 2 eggs into a small bowl and beat. Pour them into the soup in a thin stream towards the end of Step 8 — you want the egg to heat for a minute or two, until fully cooked. If you’re worried that the egg won’t cook completely (and thus may pose a salmonella risk), consider using pasteurized eggs.
- BTW, if you want to make a vegan version of this soup, it’s quite easy. Just skip any animal protein and use tofu. Substitute vegetable stock for chicken. That’s it.
- Speaking of stock, when you’re making a version that you intend to use for Asian dishes, don’t include onion, carrot, celery, or green herbs in your stock pot. Instead, include a piece of ginger about an inch long, and 3 or 4 crushed garlic cloves. I sometimes add a few scallions, too.
- Shaoxing wine is the most famous variety of Chinese rice wine. Its flavor is very similar to dry sherry (which makes an excellent and readily available substitute). Most Chinese groceries stock Shaoxing. But because it is an alcoholic beverage, local laws may place restrictions on its sale. The alcohol content is fairly low, so once opened this wine will last longer if stored in the refrigerator (the same goes for dry sherry).
- Soy sauce comes in “light” and “dark” varieties. Light soy sauce is thinner than dark and much saltier. If the bottle doesn’t specify which kind it is (in American supermarkets, most bottles don’t), assume that it’s light. Dark soy sauce is darker colored than light and is sweeter, less salty, and has a heavier consistency. Pearl River Bridge is one widely available brand of Chinese soy sauce of good quality, and comes in both light and dark varieties. If you can’t find dark (or don’t want to buy it just for this recipe), you can substitute light soy sauce.
- The “lite” soy sauces you see on supermarket shelves just have reduced sodium; they are not the same as either dark or light Chinese (or Japanese) soy sauces.
- Black and white peppercorns come from the same plant. Black peppercorns are picked while still green, then dried in the sun until they turn black. White peppercorns are allowed to ripen fully on the plant. Black peppercorns are somewhat hotter than white ones.
- Black (Chiankiang) vinegar can be found in any Chinese grocery. The flavor of wine vinegar isn’t quite the same, but in this dish it makes a good substitute.
Our Favorite Chinese Meal
Mrs. Kitchen Riffs was making gentle slurping noises as she sipped her Hot and Sour soup. OK, I can’t lie — I was doing the same thing.
“Gosh this is good!” she exclaimed when she came up for air. “We always order it when we eat at Chinese restaurants. We’ll save a bundle making our own at home.”
“And the flavor is so much better,” I agreed. “It’s a perfect starter for a Chinese meal. And it works well at the beginning of many western meals, too.”
“Speaking of which,” Mrs K R inquired, “what’s the rest of our menu for today?”
“What we always have in a Chinese restaurant — Singapore Noodles! What could be better?”
“One of my favorites!” she said, approvingly. “Only thing we’re missing are some pot stickers.”
“That’s a recipe we still owe our readers,” I replied. “But it’ll be a while before we get to it.”
“That’s OK,” Mrs K R responded wistfully. “They’d be great with this meal, but I guess I’ll just have another helping of this wonderful soup instead. And a big serving of Singapore Noodles. I’ll manage!”
I have to admit that Mrs K R handles adversity well.
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