I don’t recall what I was celebrating (as if I need an excuse), but we decided to treat ourselves to lunch at (one of) my favourite Chinese restaurant – Thiam Hock. As I perused the menu I had a nostalgic longing for hot and sour soup. Panda-in-crime let slip that hot and sour soup was his favourite so we ordered a bowl each. It was pretty tasty and came with vinegar and soy on the side, which I was thankful for as I like my soup tangy. The sourness is provided by vinegar, which balances the spicy hotness of the pepper. This is a Goldilocks dish. I like mine a touch on the sour side, whilst panda-in-crime prefers it spicier and thicker in consistency. Luckily, this is a dish that is easily tweaked – with an extra dash of this and a splash of that – just as you’d adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. The trick here is to play with the measures of vinegar, soy and pepper until yours if just right.
There is a long list of goodies in hot and sour soup. I’ve seen versions featuring sea cucumber (a marine echinoderm that looks a lot like an oversized slug) and pig’s blood pudding, but a more usual yet unusual ingredient is black or cloud ear fungus – so named as it sprouts up in ear-like shapes. Cloud ears may be somewhat lacking in flavour, but are prized for their crunchy texture and are often added to stir fries just before cooking time is up. They are usually sold in a dried form and are easily reconstituted by soaking in water for at least fifteen minutes, but remember to trim off the tough stem (where it was attached to the wood) before slicing.
Dried lily buds are also a common ingredient in hot and sour soup, but I haven’t been able to source them here yet, so I just used cloud ears, oyster mushrooms (shitake are usually used but I had some oyster mushrooms that needed using up in the fridge), tofu and fresh bamboo shoots. After all, pandas do like to chew on bamboo. This soup is all about the shredding and a bit of extra effort is worth it, as it tastes much more delicate and refined the finer the slice and dice.
I must admit that I find it particularly hard to write down a recipe for this soup as it really is a matter of keeping tasting and adding in more vinegar, soy or pepper and I always lose track of how much of what I’ve actually sloshed in. I guess that for one litre of water you could start with four tablespoons of vinegar, three of soy and one and a half teaspoons of white pepper and then see how it goes…
RECIPE:HOT AND SOUR SOUP
Two or three teaspoons of minced ginger and garlic
A handful of thinly sliced pork belly
A handful of julienned bamboo shoots
A handful of shitake mushrooms
A handful of black ‘cloud ear’ fungus
A handful of lily buds (if you can get your hands on them)
A small block of finely diced tofu
A generous glug or two of black vinegar
A splash of rice vinegar (this is the real sour stuff)
A generous swig or two of soy sauce
A teaspoon or two of white pepper
A tablespoon or two of cornflour mixed to a smooth paste with water
A dash of chilli and sesame oil
INSTRUCTIONS: Soak the cloud ears and shitake (and lily buds if you have them) in boiling water for fifteen minutes or until softened and finely shred them. Put a splash of oil into a large pot and add the minced garlic and ginger paste, pork, cloud ears and shitake, lily buds and bamboo shoots. For an extra kick you can add a sliced red chilli if you wish. Fry for a minute and then add water so the soup is not overcrowded with ingredients. Add the tofu and bring to a gentle simmer. Now it’s time for the egg drop. Beat the eggs and slowly pour them into the soup in a thin stream, stirring like mad so the egg forms delicate strands. Add the vinegars, soy sauce and pepper and boil for ten minutes. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning to your liking by adding a bit more vinegar for sourness, pepper for hotness, soy for saltiness. It might take a few dashes and splashes to get it just right. If you find the soup too sour you can always add a bit of sugar to offset it. Now add the cornflour paste and bring the soup to the boil so it thickens. If you prefer a thicker consistency add more cornflour mix, but be sure it is a smooth paste or you’ll end up with coagulated clumps of flour in your soup. Add a dash of chilli oil and sesame oil and enjoy…