A Perfect Bowl of Hot and Sour Soup

By Charleen - April 05, 2020

Hot and Sour Soup 酸辣汤 is one of the most beloved Chinese restaurant soups. The gentle white pepper heat and vinegary tang are perfectly balanced in a velvety smooth broth, enlivened by delicious slivers of earthy ingredients and lacy egg. Its flexibility and comforting nature make Hot and Sour soup the perfect "shelter-at-home" dish. Following a trip to an Asian market to pick up shelf-stable pantry staples, you can enjoy this delicious soup any time!



While the specific ingredients, from dried to fresh mushrooms, bamboo shoots, carrots or different forms of tofu may vary, the medium-thick broth that suspends these earthy ingredients in Hot and Sour soup should always be peppery and warm with a pleasant vinegary "bite". In Chinese characters, the name of this exciting yet comforting soup 酸辣汤 (suān là tāng) literally means "sour spicy soup."


By the 4th century BCE, in the late Zhou dynasty, Chinese concepts of the five flavors of spicy-hot, sweet, sour, bitter and salty were well recognized, and copiously discussed in ritual, political, moral, cosmological, medical and gustatory contexts. Food ingredients and flavors, particularly in soups, are regarded for their medicinal properties in correcting imbalances within the body. 

While Beijing has its version of a peppery soup, most food historians believe Hot and Sour soup originated in Sichuan and the western region of China. It exemplifies the art of harmonizing strong, zesty flavors, which characterizes Sichuan cuisine. Indeed, hot and sour soup is famous for curing a Ming Dynasty Chinese official, Yu Qian, from a bad cold. When passing through Henan 河南, he ordered a Hot and Sour soup that caused him to sweat profusely, breaking his fever and clearing his sinuses by the next day.

Although Sichuan cuisine is well known for its hot dried red peppers, numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and many varieties of sour pickled vegetables, Hot and Sour soup has none of these ingredients. This may be because it predates the introduction of red Capsicum peppers from the Americas in the late 15th or early 16th centuries. 

While Sichuan peppercorns from the prickly ash of the Zanthoxylum genus are native to that region of China, linguistic evidence suggests that peppercorns of the genus Piper were introduced to China via the Silk Road as the "foreign pepper" 胡椒 (hú jiāo)The adjective  signifies an origin with non-Han ethnic groups to the north and west of China, or Eurasia. Sometime between the third and 12th centuries, these peppercorns became widely used in Chinese cuisine. 

According to theories of traditional Chinese medicine, chicken broth is believed to confer healing qualities by showing warming effects. The black wood ear fungus, with its pleasing, almost crunchy texture, and ground peppercorns are believed to help boost circulation, while vinegar aids digestion. This homestyle soup may also contain cubes of coagulated fresh poultry blood, although this has fallen out of favor in modern times. 

Hot and Sour soup commonly contains a triumverate of earthy, dried pantry staples believed to have healing qualities: dried wood ear mushrooms, dried shiitake or winter mushrooms, and dried daylily flowers called golden needles. The soaking water used to rehydrate these ingredients is very flavorful, and can be used to help flavor the soup, or reserved for use whenever a umami punch is desired. 
Clockwise from top: rehydrated winter mushrooms or shiitakes, caps sliced thinly; rehydrated dried "wood ear" or "cloud ear" fungi, torn into bite sized pieces; rehydrated day lily buds, cut in half and shredded lengthwise. 

Protein is traditionally added through cooked slivers of pork or chicken, and various forms of tofu. Most commonly strips of white, firm tofu or caramel-colored "dry tofu" are used along with yellow bamboo shoots for a multihued earthy palette, punctuated by lacy strands of egg, amber droplets of toasted sesame oil and fresh green scallions and cilantro, added just before serving.

While restaurant versions of this soup are often overly thickened with cornstarch or potato starch, making the soup at home guarantees a perfect consistency to your preference. You mix the starch in a bit of the mushroom soaking water, and add it by the tablespoon until the desired consistency is reached. In testing several recipes, I found myself loving the texture and lighter colors in Grace Young's recipe, which yields a delightfully subtle balance of flavors. 
Hot and Sour soup from Wisdom of a Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young.

However, I preferred the stronger flavors of Bruce Cost's recipe, which is more similar to the best restaurant versions. This recipe contains strips of pork, which did not add much in the way of flavor, but often ended up tough and chewy if cooked according to that recipe. I also thought this recipe resulted in an insufficient amount of overly thickened broth, which should ideally form the heart of this warm and comforting soup.  I modified the marinade for the pork (See Tips at bottom of post) to yield tender, tasty strips of pork, and adjusted the water levels and the amount of cornstarch for an improved texture.
Hot and Sour soup, modified from the Epicurious website by Bruce Cost, after adjusting recipe to improve the broth consistency.


The perfect pandemic pick-me-up!

The flexibility, tangy warmth and healing properties of its ingredients make Hot and Sour soup into the perfect pandemic "shelter-at-home" comfort food. The three dried ingredients, canned bamboo shoots, vinegar, broth or water, white pepper and sesame oil are all pantry staples with very long shelf-lives. Both tofu and eggs store well in the refrigerator, and tofu can also be frozen. If you have carrots, fresh mushrooms, bean sprouts, shredded cabbage, broccoli, a few ounces of meat, by all means add them in. 

When my daughter challenged me to 2 weeks of a vegetarian diet in the midst of the current COVID-19 pandemic, I had an epiphany. Why not eliminate altogether the troublesome pork strips? 
Vegetarian hot and sour soup requires only a few chopped ingredients. 

I had already been using extra water to achieve the broth volume and consistency that ideally complemented the shredded mushrooms and vegetables. Earlier this year, after making a ramen bowl for the first time, I realized that mushroom soaking water was essentially the key ingredient known as shiitake dashi. Instead of discarding this free flavor extract, I began filtering it and adding it as a component of the liquid ingredients for this soup, making up the balance with water. This resulted in the most amazing hot and sour soup! 
Hot and Sour soup prior to finishing with egg drop, white pepper and cilantro/scallions


Hot and Sour Soup 酸辣湯 Suān là tāng                          March 28, 2020
4 Chinese dried black mushrooms (also known as dried shiitakes or winter mushrooms 冬菇  Dōnggū)
12 small dried tree ear mushrooms
15 dried lily buds (golden needles)
8 oz can (½ cup) sliced bamboo shoots,
4 oz dry tofu or 4 oz firm tofu or 6-8 oz silken tofu, rinsed, drained
1 ½ Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs red wine vinegar
3 Tbs rice vinegar (unseasoned)
1.5 Tbs light soy sauce
1.5 tsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1-2 Tbs neutral flavored oil
6 cups reduced sodium broth or water*
2 large eggs
2 tsp Asian toasted sesame oil
1.5 tsp fresh ground white pepper
2 Tbs thinly sliced scallions
2 Tbs fresh whole cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Optional: 4-6 oz of boneless pork (See tips)

1.     Place dried mushrooms, wood ears and lily buds into 4 cup tupperware with 2 cups cold water and soak 1 h at room temp or overnight refrigerated (or place in microwaveable bowl with water to cover. Microwave for 3-4 minutes and immediately cover with plate).
2.     Rinse bamboo shoots and cut into 1/8-inch wide strips. Cut dry tofu into ¼ inch thick strips, firm tofu into 1/2 inch strips or silken tofu into ½ inch cubes. 
3.     Remove tree ears and lily buds from soaking liquid. Trim off any tough tips on lily buds or hard nubs on tree ears. Cut lily buds in half crosswise and then tear each in lengthwise into 2-3 shreds. Tear tree ears into bite size pieces, if large.
4.     Remove mushrooms, reserving liquid. Thinly slice caps and remove any tough stems (save for making stock). Mix ¼ cup mushroom soaking liquid with 1.5 Tbs. cornstarch in small bowl.
5.     Stir together vinegars, light soy sauce, sugar and salt in another small bowl.
6.     Heat wok until a drop of water evaporates in 1 second. Swirl in oil.  Add mushrooms, tree ears, lily buds and bamboo shoots and stir-fry 1 minute.
7.     Add broth/water (*see below) and bring to a boil.  Add tofu and return to boil.  Add the vinegar mixture. Stir cornstarch to resuspend, add to broth and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to moderate and simmer a few min until thickened.
8.     Beat eggs with a few drops of sesame oil.  While stirring soup slowly in one direction, drizzle egg in a thin stream. Add white pepper and sesame oil. Taste and adjust with more salt, vinegar or pepper if necessary.
9.     Serve with scallions and cilantro on top.

*4 cups chicken or vegetable stock plus decanted mushroom soaking water and/or water to total 6 cups. 
Modified from Bruce Cost, Gourmet Jan 2005 (epicurious) on Dec. 21, 2017; eliminated 5 oz pork loin cut in strips and tossed with 2 tsp soy sauce on March 28, 2020.

Click here for the print-formatted recipe.



Tips: 
🐾 Always a crowd pleaser, this recipe is easy to scale up and make mostly in advance for a potluck event. For the best flavor, bring along some extra vinegar and perform Steps 8-9 shortly before serving. 

🍃 This recipe is gluten-free and can be adapted for vegan diets by omitting the egg. Be sure to use the filtered mushroom soaking water to supplement the vegetable stock.

🍃 Got a few ounces of chicken or pork leftover from another recipe? Cut into strips and marinate in a bit of soy sauce, oil and cornstarch to be stir-fried before adding rehydrated ingredients in Step 6. For 4-8 oz meat, use 1-2 tsp of soy sauce, 1 tsp oil; Mix well before blending in 1 tsp of cornstarch.

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