Click here to listen to me talking about hot and sour soup on KUOW.
Recipes are down below.
Hot and sour soup isn’t the prettiest, or even the second-prettiest soup there is. In fact, if I had to curate a list of beautiful soups, it would be miles below pho and chicken noodle, pasta e fagiole and tom yum. Hot and sour soup looks like dirty nothing in a bowl.
At least, that’s what I thought, before I got to know it. I guess it’s a soup like some people, that way – it’s easy to pigeonhole and walk away from, if you don’t know any better.
I grew up “hating” hot and sour soup, which means I’d never tasted it. (I hated a lot of things, including, but not limited to, anything with spice, foreign flavors, or ingredients whose entire preparation I didn’t personally witness from start to finish.) At Chinese restaurants, my family ordered a big bowl to share, and I ordered egg drop soup. The waitress would rattle her cart to our table and hold my lone bowl up accusingly, as if to ask Who ordered the boring soup?
Me. It was always me.
A few weeks ago, I came very close to doing the same thing, because I enjoy the simplicity of egg drop soup, and because it’s what I’ve always ordered. But for whatever reason – perhaps because I wasn’t really paying attention, or maybe because I am now An Adult Who Likes Things – I hopped on the hot and sour bandwagon, along with the rest of the table. And I tasted my new favorite soup for the first time.
I know. That f-word. It’s a bit of a shock to see it on the screen, even. I’m not a big fan of favorites. I go for change, and variety, and different every time. But this soup, people. If I count correctly, I’ve had hot and sour soup nine times in two weeks. Nine times. (Obsess much?)
The thing is, it’s worth obsessing over. Don’t look at it; taste it. Sip a spoonful, and the first thing you’ll notice is the texture – a bit of cornstarch makes it silky, almost satiny. It glosses over the tongue in a way few Western foods can, every drop somehow fatter and smoother. If you’re lucky enough to get a bit of soft, ribbony egg (and were lucky enough, in the first place, to pick a soup whose preparer got the egg to bloom up just right, like in the photo above), it glides across your palate. Then there are the cloud ear mushrooms, which don’t really taste like much, but have a lovely crunch, like some sort of terrestrial seaweed. (They supposedly improve circulation, too.) There are lily buds, with their vegetal, almost artichoke-like flavor. (Bet you didn’t even notice them the first time.) And then . . . then. . . there’s the clean, astringent hot of white pepper, and the brisk, bracing vinegar flavor.
Of course, there are endless variations. I tried rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, and a mixture of various vinegars. (I think I like white vinegar the best, because its flavor is stronger than rice vinegar but not too fruity.) There’s also whatever else the cook feels like adding – little gifts, like chunks of tofu, or pork, or carrot, or chili. I’d been tasting soups everywhere, trying to figure out, since I’d never been down the hot and sour soup road, what I liked. More tofu? More pork? More hot? More sour?
Hot and sour is, after all, a rather homey thing. Traditionally made with the most humble ingredients – dried staples, small bits of meat – it’s a soup made with leftovers. They just might not be the leftovers you have in your kitchen.
I scurried around Pike Place Market, collecting ingredients. (You can get everything there.) I made a few traditional versions first, relying on recipes from Grace Young, Mark Bittman, and Susanna Foo, until I learned what combination of flavors I liked.
As it turns out, I’m sort of greedy. I like a healthy combination of tofu and pork – more than one usually finds in restaurant versions of hot and sour soup – and more than anything, I like a soup made with good, homemade stock. I like to tinker with the pepper and vinegar, until I get it just right. And I like to eat my hot and sour soup right when it’s fallen just below scorching, screaming hot – which is to say, immediately.
I also like the version I made using what’s available now at farmers’ markets here in Seattle – Northwest leftovers and pantry staples, if you will, like dried porcini mushrooms, and kale, and carrots.
Only problem now is deciding which one’s my favorite. Time for bowl number ten.