We have been having some cool and wet weather to usher in Autumn – barely topping 50 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-day. On days such as these, there is nothing that warms body and mind better than a big bowl of home-cooked soup. Sometimes its a bowl of Central Asian Shurpa, sometimes a hearty Korean soup like Doenjang-jjigae,and sometimes homemade Hot and Sour Soup but the effect is the same – a full, cozy, warmth from a delicious soup that has been slowly cooking for a long time in the kitchen.
This past, rainy Saturday, I made a big pot of Hot and Sour Soup from a recipe I’ve been working on for a long time that reconstructs my favorite bowl of this soup. Slices of black (tree-ear) mushrooms, bamboo shoots, ginger and garlic in a hearty, meaty, vinegar-laced broth are the hallmarks of this soup. Some versions add different amounts of tofu and this along with a cornstarch mixture can turn this into a light stew instead of a soup. There are a lot of variations out there – some claim the secret ingredient is blood, other’s lilly-flower buds, but the crux of the flavor of my soup is a heaping tablespoon or two of black-bean paste. Without this, it will never taste like that favorite bowl of soup you sometimes crave.
Forget all of the watered-down recipes for this soup that pollute the internet from the celebrichef du jour (most of whom know little or nothing about Asian cuisines) that usually result in a mildly flavored chicken broth and bookmark this recipe. Look for it as well when Volume Three of The Silk Road Gourmet comes out.
This soup will be best made with a homemade stock, but to save time, I suggest dressing up a commercial stock as your soup base. Since I find most commercial soup stocks to be lacking flavor – especially flavor that is complimentary for eastern soups. My solution for this is to create a soup base for hot and sour soup that uses commercial stock, but then transforms it to a deep, spicy marvel – worthy of this favorite soup. You can make to soup base on one day and the soup on another – if you can wait. It also keeps well in a cold refrigerator or root cellar for several days and becomes more delicious as it ages.
Hot and Sour Soup
by Laura Kelley
5 cups beef stock
5 cups chicken stock
¾ – 1 cup rice wine vinegar
2 yellow onions, peeled and roughly chopped
10 garlic corms crushed
¼ pound pork, cut into thick chunks (omit for vegetarian recipe)
2 x 1 inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly coined
4-6 hot, red dried chili peppers
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, crushed
1 corm star anise (optional)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
6-8 tree-ear or shitake mushrooms chopped
1-2 heaping tablespoons black bean paste
2 cups chicken broth or water
¼ pound pork, sliced
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame oil
4 corms garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1 x 1 inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
10 lily buds, reconstituted and sliced
10 tree-ear mushrooms, reconstituted & sliced
1/2 cup bamboo shoots, julienned
4 – 6 spring onions, chopped
1 teaspoon Sichuan pepper, crushed
1 medium block tofu, sliced (about 1 cup) (omit if you dislike tofu – it turns out fine)
1 egg beaten
In a large sauce pan or stock pot, add the commercial stock, the vinegar, the onions and the garlic and bring to a boil over medium heat. When it reaches a boil add the pork, ginger, chili peppers, peppercorns and anise. Return to a boil and immediately reduce the heat until the soup is at a steady simmer. Cook covered for 15-20 minutes stirring occasionally.
Slice the pork for the soup (not the soup base) and mix with the dark soy sauce, covering the pork well with the sauce. Set aside and marinate until needed.
Then add soy sauce, mushrooms, and black bean paste to the soup base and bring back to a steady simmer. Cook covered another 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and strain solids through cheesecloth and discard the solids from making the soup base.
Return soup base to a clean sauce pan or stock pot. If resting the stock, put it in a cool place for a few days and skim some of the fat off before cooking. If cooking the soup directly over the fresh soup base, warm over moderate heat. Add the two cups of chicken broth to thin the base out a bit before making the soup. As the soup base warms, heat the sesame oil in a wok over high heat. When it is just about to smoke, add the marinated pork and its marinade and stir fry over high heat until the pork becomes opaque and starts to color 1-2 minutes. Add the garlic and the ginger and continue to stir fry for 1-2 minutes. If the mix gets dry, add a few tablespoons of soup base. Add the mushrooms, bamboo shoots and lily buds and cook 1-2 minutes. When done, add the contents of the wok to the soup base. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and cover until the soup reaches a steady low simmer. Cook covered about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now add the spring onions and Sichuan pepper, stir well. If using, add the tofu. Cook uncovered for another 2-3 minutes, then stir in the beaten egg and remove from heat and set aside, uncovered for at least 10 minutes to cool before serving. Serve with additional chopped spring onions, soy sauce and rice vinegar as condiments.
The most interesting thing to me about this soup and this recipe is how AMERICAN it really is. Hot and Sour soups of all kinds abound throughout China and many other Eastern Asian cuisines. They are highly varied and tend to be another way to consume the food leftover from previous meals. This soup, however, is the quintessential Chinese-American soup, and perhaps the one most enjoyed by most Americans. It is a hybrid dish from Chinese immigrants and has no real equivalent in modern China. I simply love dishes like this – for example General Tso’s chicken, or in the Italian groove – Seafood Fra Diavolo. No equivalent exists in the homeland, yet it is one of the most beloved dishes in the country where the immigrants settled and adapted their favorite dishes.
I think the reason I love Chinese-American and Italian-American (and Thai-American etc) dishes like this is that they are excellent examples of how cuisines are alive, and growing and changing over time and geographical or cultural circumstance. They also underscore how food is a part of the material culture of a people and how it is brought with them when they move to new digs.
Food snobs and elitists have a tendency to criticize these dishes as if they are somehow not really Chinese or really Italian. But to me they are some of the shining examples of the cuisine, alive and kicking, not encased in carbonite or frozen as an ideal form. So, the next time you tuck into a bowl of Hot and Sour Soup, be it from your favorite local Chinese eatery or from the recipe above, appreciate it for what it really is, a delicious fragment of Chinese-American culture. (Words and recipe by Laura Kelley. Photo of Hot and Sour Soup by Hang-Cheng-Tan@Dreamstime.com)