Shiksa Ball Soup may have marvelous healing powers, but it does lack the ability to raise the dead.
Hot and Sour Soup takes up where the shiksa balls leave off. It can, by virtue of its bold and vivacious flavors, awaken the most hung-over sot from an alcohol induced coma. I am sure of it. I know, because, in my youth, I often was that hung-over sot.
Back when I was in college the first time, long ago in the “stone knives and bearskins era” of computers before the Internet, I was a partier. Being such, I discovered that the best way to break my fast and awaken to the world of journalistic deadlines and excitable editors who felt no compunction about screaming into reporter’s ears, was to hike on down to my most beloved of Chinese restaurants and order a steaming bowl of hot and sour soup and a pot of tea.
The fragrant tea awakened my spirit, and the hot and sour soup kick-started my recalcitrent body. After the hot and sour soup awoke my stomach and convinced my metabolism to considerreturning to resembling normal functioning, I’d have a plate of chicken with garlic sauce to really get the motor humming. After that lunch, I was ready for anything, including scowling professors who didn’t believe in foul language in the newsroom and lost feature photographs for the front page.
After I dropped out of college, and then got married, and then ended up in a messy divorce, I found myself working at my favorite Chinese restaurant.
I ended up taking a good chunk of my caloric intake in hot and sour soup. I used to buy it at the end of the night at twenty-five cents a quart, and would carry it home. Once there, I would climb out on the roof of my furnitureless rented house, and perch there with my housemate (who also worked there) , and we would drink the soup, usually directly from the container. I discovered that having no breakfast, a small lunch composed primarily of rice, a medium sized dinner of homestyle Chinese food and a midnight snack of a half quart to a quart of hot and sour soup while working double shifts as a waitress in a busy restaurant will take the pounds off of a body, very quickly.
The soup is actually quite nutritious; the version I was eating had a very little bit of shredded pork in it, along with a good bit of tofu, some mushrooms, cloud ear fungus, bamboo shoots and eggs, all cooked in a chicken broth. It was very low in fat, and high in protein and fiber. Seasoned as it was with black pepper and vinegar, it was very good for the digestion.
Later, after I went back to college in Athens, Ohio, I found another restaurant which made good hot and sour soup, and while I wasn’t a drunken sot this time around, I still found that skipping breakfast and going to early classes on coffee alone, then breaking my fast at lunchtime with hot and sour soup was a good way to really start my afternoon.
It wasn’t until I moved to Providence, Rhode Island and went to culinary school that I discovered that I needed to learn how to make hot and sour soup, since it was impossible to find a restaurant that made a good rendition of it.
I was used to eating hot and sour soup in a Sichuan restaurant, and the places in Rhode Island were great with the Cantonese specialties, but not so good with the Sichuan. Their soups were neither hot nor sour and were utterly lacking in character. One thing that hot and sour soup should never lack for is character; it is, at its best, an utterly complex brew, a wild melange of flavors, textures and scents that cannot fail to perk a body up.
So, I looked at a couple of recipes and started cooking.
Traditionally, hot and sour soup is made hot with black pepper and sour with rice vinegar. However, many restaurants in the U.S. use chile garlic paste to provide the heat, so in my first attemptsI used a teaspoon or so of that in addition to the black pepper . It turned out well, but was not as flavorful as I wanted, so, I started experimenting.
I decided to see what I could do to punch up the flavor of the broth–I ended up simmering minced ginger and garlic in the broth for at least an hour before adding other ingredients. This really worked wonders; just that little extra time made the soup that much better than before.
Three traditional ingredients in hot and sour soup are black mushrooms (dried shiitake), lily buds and tree ear or cloud ear fungus, also known as black fungus. All three of these items are dried and are available in any Chinese market, and I discovered, that the first two add huge amounts of complexity to the finished soup when used properly.
Dried ingredients for hot and sour soup. From the top left: black fungus, also known as cloud ear fungus or tree ear fungus, lily buds, also known as golden needles, and black mushroom, also known as dried shiitake mushrooms.
They all need to be rehydrated in warm to hot water before using; the first step in making my hot and sour soup is always the gathering of and rehydrating of these three ingredients. I usually only need to soak them for about twenty minutes, during which time, I have started the broth simmering.
The black mushrooms and lily buds add not only solid substance and textural interest to the soup, but they bring an extra bonus: the water I soaked them in goes into the simmering soup, adding another layer of flavor. The mushrooms add a dark, mysterious quality to the soup, while the lily buds add a piquant tang. The only caveat in using the soaking water is to always leave the last bit in the bowl; there is grit left behind from the processing of these ingredients, which you do not want in your soup. As I said about cleaning leeks thoroughly–gritty soup sucks.
Cloud ear fungus does not have any inherent flavor of its own; it is a texture food. Like jellyfish or sea cucumber, cloud ear provides a unique mouthfeel to the dishes it is added to. The Chinese love to eat things that have contrasting textures as well as interesting flavors and colors; cloud ear mushrooms provide a bit of deep black color and an interesting crunch to the soup. There is no need to try and use the soaking liquid from the fungus; it will add nothing to the broth in the way of flavor, so I usually just discard that after it is finished soaking.
While living in Providence, I ran across a huge Asian market that had a dizzying array of fresh produce; that is where I first came into contact with fresh waterchestnuts and had a conversion experience that was rather akin to Saul Paulus while on the road to Tarsus. (I know that sounds heretical, and maybe it is, but you try a fresh water chestnut and tell me it isn’t divine, especially if all you have had up until then is canned.) The place was called Mekong Market, and it was there that I found fresh galangal and lemongrass, which I bought up greedily in order to make another beloved and life-saving soup, Tom Kha Gai.
Galangal root is a hard, knobby rhizome that is related to ginger, but tastes nothing like it. It has a difficult to define flavor: medicinal but not in a Listerine-yucky sense, fragrant, with a woodlands scent, and redolent of musk and spice without being in any way hot. It is similar in flavor to black cardamom, but more complex, and once I smelled the fresh sort, I threw away all of my dried galangal and vowed never to use it again, as all of the fragrance and most of the flavor is leeched away in the drying process. I have since discovered that flash frozen galangal root carries all of the good traits of fresh, and its one bad trait is mediated: galangal root is rock hard. It takes a good heavy cleaver and a strong arm to cut it into coin-shaped slices, and when you are finished letting it bath a broth or stock with its fragrance, it is best to remove all solid traces of it, lest a diner inadvertantly chip a tooth in trying to eat it.
Lemongrass has the scent of lemon verbena, but it is more able to withstand high heat cooking. It is a stalk, and the lower third of it is used, either minced or shredded or crushed in Thai salads, noodles or curries, or, the whole stalk is crushed with a hearty blow with the side of a cleaver and is simmered in a soup, then fished out at the end of cooking.
Having these two ingredients at hand in my refrigerator meant that it was inevitable that they got added to my hot and sour soup one day. And so, they were–I put them in with the ginger and garlic for a one hour pre-simmer, before adding all the other ingredients, and the flavors that they introduced to the brew were intoxicating and delicious. I served it at a dinner to my Chinese and Korean compatriots in culinary school, and they went wild trying to guess the mystery ingredients. Lemongrass was easy–Nee Wee, from Singapore got that one right away, but no one got the galangal. They could taste it, they knew it was there, they knew it was good, but they couldn’t figure it out until I showed them.
Since then, I have always added those two completely untraditional ingredients to my hot and sour soup, and I have never yet had a complaint from anyone. Everyone loves it. (Though, I must say, none other than Martin Yan puts lemongrass in his hot and sour soup–years after I started using it, I saw in his book, Culinary Journey Through China, that he also liked the flavor of lemongrass. I felt vindicated.)
A final non-traditional ingredient I have taken to using in my soup is Sichuan peppercorn, though, again, later, I found that at least one well-known Chinese chef and cookbook author does the same thing. Sichuan peppercorn adds significantly to the fragrance of the soup, and because I use a reasonably small amount, it does not stand out the way it does in Kung Pao dishes or Ma Po Tofu. It simply adds a floral spiciness that completely melds with the black pepper heat into a beautiful culinary liason that never fails to mystify, yet seduce my guests.
In the end, my version of hot and sour soup is very different from the one that I ate at Huy’s restaurant, and tastes nothing like any other version I have had anywhere. I have since taught the recipe to many students, all of whom say that the flavor is addictive and it ruins them for eating hot and sour soup out in restaurants. That, of course, was not my goal; I think that a good version of hot and sour soup, cooked in an authentic way is just as wonderful as my version: it is just different. Not better, not worse, just itself.
The major flavoring and texture ingredients for my version of hot and sour soup. From the far left, black fungus, fresh lemongrass, frozen galangal, fresh garlic, lily buds, black mushroom, fresh ginger, dried chile peppers, Sichuan peppercorns and black peppercorns.
Hot and Sour Soup
3 quarts chicken stock or broth (For a totally vegetarian soup, use vegetable broth)
4-6 stalks lemongrass, trimmed, and cut into 3″ pieces
3 ounces galangal, fresh or frozen, cut into coin-sized slices
1″ cube fresh ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3-5 dried Chinese chile peppers
1/4-1/2 cup Shao Sing wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1″ cube ginger, peeled and cut into matchstick slivers
1/4 cup dried lily buds, rinsed and soaked in 1/2 cup warm water until softened
4 black mushrooms, rinsed and soaked in 1 cup warm water
handful of dried cloud ear, soaked in warm water
1 can bamboo shredded bamboo shoots, drained and rinsed in warm, then cold water
8 ounces firm or extra firm tofu, cut into thin strips
2 eggs, beaten
dark soy sauce to taste
chili garlic paste to taste (optional)
cornstarch slurry (optional)
white rice vinegar to taste
black rice vinegar to taste
2 teaspoons sesame oil
3 scallion Tops, finely sliced on the diagonal
handful whole cilantro leaves, rinsed, and stemmed
Put your stock or broth in a large soup pot or dutch oven. Add galangal, lemongrass, minced ginger and garlic and whole chile peppers. Cover, put it on high heat and bring to a simmer, then turn down on medium. Allow to simmer for at least one hour, covered, or until you like the amount of lemongrass and galangal flavor.
Pour in your wine or sherry.
Meanwhile, in a small skillet toast your black peppercorns and Sichuan peppercorns until fragrant. Grind them in a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder and add them to the pot, putting the lid back on.
Using a wire skimmer, fish out galangal and lemongrass, and discard. You can leave in the chile peppers or not as you desire. Add wine, and the soaking liquids from the lily buds and black mushrooms, being careful to leave the dregs of the soaking liquid, with its attendant grit in the bowls, and discard. (Squeeze excess water out of the mushrooms and lily buds; for the mushrooms it will make them much easier to slice; besides all that good juice makes your soup broth really flavorful.)
Now, put your lily buds into the soup pot, and slice your mushrooms and fungus. Take your squeezed out mushrooms, and slice off the stems, which are too tough to eat without cooking them for a very long time. The easiest way to do this is to fold your mushroom in half, backwards, with the stem pointing outwards, and then lay it on the cutting board and slice it off. You will lose a bit of the cap, but that is okay. Then, slice the caps into thin strips.
For the black fungus, first, cut or tear off any hard bits where the fungus grew to the tree trunk. Those tough pieces never soften as they cook. Then, take each piece of fungus and roll it up cigar style, lay it on the cutting board and cut it crossways into thin strips. They unroll into little ribbons.
Once you have cut the fungus and mushrooms, throw them into the still simmering soup, along with your drained and rinsed bamboo shoots. I buy these already shredded.
Taste your soup broth and see how flavorful it is. If you want it to develop more flavor, you can cook it, covered, for another hour. Or you can add more wine. Or more pepper. Whatever you like.
After the soup broth has gotten a flavor you like, gently add the tofu. Now, when you stir the soup, do it carefully to keep the tofu from breaking apart.
Bring the soup to a boil, and start stirring it steadily clockwise. Pour the eggs into the soup in a very thin stream and watch them form little clouds in the broth. These are poetically called egg flowers. They do look like delicate flower petals.
At this point, season your soup to taste with dark soy sauce (I usually add about a tablespoon or so of it)and chile garlic paste, if you want more chile heat. I prefer to let the black pepper dominate, so I use little chile paste.
While the soup is still boiling, add a cornstarch slurry to thicken it. As soon as it thickens as much as you like, take it off the heat so you can finish the seasoning and garnishing. I don’t like my soup to be really gloppy thick, nor do I like there to be cornstarch boogers in the soup, where when the soup was being thickened, no one was stirring and a big lump of cornstarch formed a scary loogy thing. Ick. I generally use very little cornstarch, just so it barely thickens enough to coat a spoon with a thin layer.
Off the heat, add the vinegars–I use half white and half black vinegar–the black is sweeter, so it adds yet another flavor nuance to the soup. You can use one or the other or both. But whatever you do, add it off of the heat. If you add it while the soup is simmering or boiling it will boil away–vinegar boils at a lower heat than water so you will lose the sour flavor if you add it any earlier. Also, if you heat up leftover soup to a boil, remember to add more vinegar after it is hot, or you will not have the sour flavor anymore.
Also, how sour is a matter of preference. I like mine pretty sour, but I know other people like it a bit more subtle. Hence the lack of a definate amount on the vinegars. What I like may not be what you like.
Finally, add the sesame oil, and sprinkle on the cilantro and the scallion tops.
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