THE WASHINGTON POST – To say my taste in food growing up leaned mild over spicy would be an understatement. Case in point: Our regular trips to our local Chinese spot. While most of my family opted for the hot-and-sour soup, I stood alone on wonton island.
Years later, when I finally jumped on the hot-and-sour bandwagon, I started making up for lost time. On ordinary days, on cold days, on I-have-a-cold days, it delivers just the amount of mouth-puckering, tingly comfort that I crave. (It’s right up there with Thai tom yum gai, in my book). I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to beat the convenience and price of my local carryout spot. But I do love the challenge of re-creating a favourite restaurant dish at home, and if you’re someone who appreciates having more control over what you eat, it’s a no-brainer.
So here’s my take on Takeout-Style Hot-and-Sour Soup. As is often true, I got the best results when pulling inspiration from a variety of sources, in this case three of them. The recipes were surprisingly similar in a lot of ways, down to the amounts of some ingredients. Still, I liked aspects of each that were not the same across the board. Among the elements I wanted to fuse: The bamboo shoots from one of my go-to takeout recipe authors, Diana Kuan; the meat and savoury wood ear mushrooms from blogger Maggie Zhu at the Ominvore’s Cookbook blog; and the potent, generous pour of black vinegar and chili oil from America’s Test Kitchen (ATK), which published a recipe I’d toyed around with in the past.
There are two ingredients that help make hot and sour what it is. The hot comes courtesy of ground white pepper. It’s from the same source as black pepper, but the berries are allowed to ripen before their skins are removed. The result is technically less spicy, but more complex and floral. You can use black pepper here in a pinch – I’ve done it, though, and the flavour was just not quite there. Thankfully, white pepper is a pretty standard grocery store find. The other key ingredient represents the sour: Chinkiang black vinegar. This will probably require a trip to your local Asian market or an online order. Sichuan food authority Fuchsia Dunlop said the vinegar “is actually made from glutinous rice, and the dark colour comes naturally from scorched rice grains.” Food 52 elaborates with a bit more insight from Dunlop, explaining that “it’s less sweet than balsamic vinegar.” Seeking out the vinegar is worth it (a single bottle will last you many batches of soup, which I guarantee you’ll want to make).
Dried mushrooms play a strong supporting role, lending heft to the final dish and a savoury, umami-rich undertone to the broth. I felt like I’d struck liquid gold when I decided to use some of the mushroom soaking water to form the basis of the soup, too. The two types called for here are dried shiitake, available at many supermarkets, and wood ear, which you might as well pick up from the Asian market when you get the black vinegar. If you can’t find wood ear (it may be labelled as black fungus), just use all shiitake. It’ll be fine.
The end product, however, is anything but “fine.” It’s superb, really. Loaded with those mushrooms and juicy meat, and chock full of feathery, cooked-in-an-instant eggs, this is one hearty soup that manages to be surprisingly light as well. It will never be light on flavour, though, as I now know to appreciate.
TAKEOUT-STYLE HOT-AND-SOUR SOUP
Four to six servings (makes about seven and a half cups)
Hot-and-sour soup is a Chinese takeout staple, but one that’s especially easy and tasty when made at home.
Recipe notes: This soup can be made vegetarian by replacing the meat with more tofu. If you like your soup particularly hot or sour, add more chili oil or vinegar to taste.
Store the soup for up to three days in the refrigerator.
Half ounce dried shiitake mushrooms (about six)
Half ounce dried wood ear mushrooms (about three)
Two cups warm water, plus four cups cool water
Eight ounces boneless meat, cut into thin strips
Three tablespoons cornstarch combined with a quarter cup water, plus one and a half teaspoons cornstarch
One and a quarter teaspoons salt
Five tablespoons Chinkiang black vinegar (see headnote), or more as needed
Two teaspoons chili oil, plus more for optional garnish
One teaspoon ground white pepper
10 thin slices fresh ginger
Two tablespoons regular or low-sodium soy sauce
A quarter cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and cut into matchsticks
Eight ounces firm tofu, cut into half-inch cubes
Two large eggs, lightly beaten
Two to three scallions, thinly sliced
Gently rinse the dried shiitake and dried wood ear mushrooms with tap water. In a medium bowl, soak the mushrooms in the two cups warm water until softened, about 20 minutes. Squeeze the excess water out of the mushrooms and reserve the water. (Strain the mushroom water through a fine-mesh strainer if it looks too gritty.) Discard the stems from the shiitake mushrooms and slice the caps into strips. Discard the tough ends of the wood ear mushrooms before chopping into bite-size pieces.
In a medium bowl, combine the meat, one and a half teaspoons cornstarch and quarter teaspoon salt. Mix until the meat is evenly coated, and let it marinate on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir together the black vinegar, chili oil and pepper.
In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the mushroom water, four cups cool water and sliced ginger and bring to a boil. Cook for two to three minutes, then, using a slotted spoon, remove and discard the ginger. Add the soy sauce, followed by the rehydrated mushrooms and bamboo shoots, and simmer for five minutes. Give the cornstarch mixture a quick stir to recombine and gradually stir into the soup. The soup will become slightly thickened.
Add the meat, including the marinade, to the soup, stirring to separate any pieces that stick together. Continue to simmer until the meat is no longer pink, about two minutes. Carefully add the tofu, so the broth does not splash. Stir in the remaining one teaspoon salt.
Slowly pour the eggs into the soup in a steady stream while stirring continuously with a long spoon or chopstick. The eggs should cook immediately and look like long yellowish-white strands. Turn off the heat once you see the strands, so the eggs do not overcook, and stir in the black vinegar mixture.
Serve hot, garnished with scallions and additional chili oil, if desired.
Nutrition (based on six servings) | Calories: 180; Total Fat: 8g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 95mg; Sodium: 550mg; Carbohydrates: 11g; Dietary Fibre: 0g; Sugars: 1g; Protein: 14g.