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 favorite 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 pork and savory wood ear mushrooms from blogger Maggie Zhu at the Ominvore’s Cookbook blog; and the potent, generous pour of black vinegar and chile oil from America’s Test Kitchen, 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 flavor 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 says the vinegar “is actually made from glutinous rice, and the dark color comes naturally from scorched rice grains.” Food 52 elaborates with a bit more insight from Dunlop, explaining that “it’s less sweet than balsamic, but not as tart as sherry or red wine 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). If, however, that’s not in the cards, ATK recommends a replacement of 1 tablespoon each of balsamic and red wine vinegars. It won’t be the same – again, I’ve made the swap in the past – but it’s something.
Dried mushrooms play a strong supporting role, lending heft to the final dish and a savory, 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 labeled 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 pork, 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 flavor, though, as I now know to appreciate.
Takeout-Style Hot-And-Sour Soup
50 minutes. 4 to 6 servings (makes about 7 1/2 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 pork with more tofu. If you like your soup particularly hot or sour, add more chile oil or vinegar to taste.
Store the soup for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.
1/2 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms (about 6)
1/2 ounce dried wood ear mushrooms (about 3)
2 cups warm water, plus 4 cups cool water
8 ounces boneless pork loin, cut into thin strips
1 1/2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine; may substitute dry sherry)
3 tablespoons cornstarch combined with 1/4 cup water, plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
5 tablespoons Chinkiang black vinegar (see headnote), or more as needed
2 teaspoons chile oil, plus more for optional garnish
1 teaspoon ground white pepper
10 thin slices fresh ginger
2 tablespoons regular or low-sodium soy sauce
1/4 cup canned bamboo shoots, drained and cut into matchsticks
8 ounces firm tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 to 3 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 2 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 pork, Shaoxing wine, 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Mix until the pork is evenly coated, and let it marinate on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes.
In a small bowl, stir together the black vinegar, chile oil and pepper.
In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the mushroom water, 4 cups cool water and sliced ginger and bring to a boil. Cook for 2 to 3 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 5 minutes. Give the cornstarch mixture a quick stir to recombine and gradually stir into the soup. The soup will become slightly thickened.
Add the pork, including the marinade, to the soup, stirring to separate any pieces that stick together. Continue to simmer until the pork is no longer pink, about 2 minutes. Carefully add the tofu, so the broth does not splash. Stir in the remaining 1 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 chile oil, if desired.
Nutrition (based on 6 servings) | Calories: 180; Total Fat: 8 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 95 mg; Sodium: 550 mg; Carbohydrates: 11 g; Dietary Fiber: 0 g; Sugars: 1 g; Protein: 14 g.
(Adapted from recipes by omnivorescookbook.com, America’s Test Kitchen and Diana Kuan.)