Monday, January 19, 2009

A Story About Hot and Sour Soup

I can’t eat hot and sour soup without being reminded of a cold January day when my Mom and I trekked out to the café around the corner for a steaming bowl of soup for lunch.

Now, for any readers who don’t already know, I’m from Montreal. So when I say it was a cold January day, I mean it was a COLD January day. I’m talking so cold, that when you open up the door a crack to get the newspaper, you’re chilled in seconds and it will take you the next hour to get warm again. I’m talking so cold that it literally freezes your face, as in, after a minute or so, you can’t smile, frown, or wiggle your nose. I’m talking so cold that unless you’re wearing snow pants, your legs go numb so that if you flick your thigh, you won’t feel it. I’m talking so cold that leaving an indoors, heated environment wearing anything less than a parka, a scarf, a toque, insulated gloves, and warm boots, is asking for hypothermia.

So, yeah, it was that kind of cold. And, very wisely, my Mom suggested that we go around the corner to this little café and have a bowl of their hot and sour soup for lunch. It would be just the thing for a day like this. I gladly accepted her invitation.

The walk from our house to the café was less than ten minutes, but we were painfully frozen by the time we got to it. The café was warm and smelled delicious (they bake fresh bread), so we were immediately comforted by the welcoming environment and took our seats. We waited a moment before removing our coats, still feeling the chill from outside, and looked around for someone who might be available to serve us. It’s a small place, and at the moment, we were the only customers inside, so whoever was working must have been hiding in back.

I went up to the counter and called towards the kitchen: “Hello?” It took a minute, but the kindly man who owns the café with his wife eventually emerged, wringing his hands and all apologies for making us wait.

We told him it was no trouble, and really, we didn’t mind. We were in no rush, and knew that this café had never been known for its prompt and exceptional customer service. We just wanted our soup.

“We’ll both take a large hot and sour soup,” my Mom said.

“Oh,” the owner said, looking a little apprehensive, “yes, sure, but we have to make it.”

“You don’t have any now?”

“No, but we’ll make it,” the owner insisted, seeming to suddenly cheer at the thought of making soup. “No trouble.”

My Mom wasn’t so convinced. “You have to make it from scratch?”

“Yes, but it will be very fresh. No trouble, I’ll be back soon.” And he scurried away before we could get another word in.

My Mom and I looked at each other uncertainly, both thinking that this wasn’t quite what we had come for. How long could it take to make the soup from scratch? Neither of us knew, but we decided too long. So, when the owner returned with glasses of water for us, we tried again to tell him we would order something different.

The owner wouldn’t hear of it. “No, no. My wife is already making it. It will be very good. No trouble.”

At this point, it seemed rude to refuse him. Both of us were hungry, and neither of us felt like sitting around for an hour waiting for a bowl of soup, but it seemed we were stuck. We weren’t totally put off, though. Like I said, we weren’t rushed, and hadn’t we come here for the soup anyways?We chatted and waited, soon growing warm enough to remove our coats and scarves. We watched a few customers pass through, getting coffees to go or fresh bread. One man, who clearly must have been insane, ordered an ice cream cone, which he ate two tables away from us. We had warmed up completely by then, but we shuddered at the thought of the coldness of that ice cream on a day like this.

Fifteen minutes went by … twenty … and then thirty. We were really hungry now, and I was at the point where I didn’t even want the soup anymore. It shouldn’t have been this much trouble for such a simple order, and there was an apple turnover in the pastry case that seemed to be calling my name. I knew the owner was going out of his way to give us what we wanted, but isn’t there a point where pleasing the customer just goes too far? Or, more accurately, what was the point of giving the customer what he or she wants when it also meant giving them something they didn’t want? Like a wait longer than half an hour.

It was forty-five minutes after the owner first took our order that he finally emerged from the kitchen, proudly carrying two very large, steaming bowls of hot and sour soup. My Mom and I were so relieved to finally get some food that we only mumbled a quick thanks before digging in.

It only took one full slurp for me to realize that all of this had been worth the trouble. The trek through the freezing cold, the long wait, the awkwardness of feeling like we had caused an inconvenience—all of it was forgotten as I filled my mouth and my belly with that soup. The spiciness, the sourness, the savory tofu and mushrooms, and the silky strands of egg all seemed to heighten the warmth of this dark, earthy soup. After being indoors for nearly an hour, we thought that we had thoroughly ridden ourselves from the outside chill, but that soup seemed to seep into cold nooks and crannies of ourselves that we didn’t even know were there and warm them up.

I think that this experience is responsible for the profound love I have now for hot and sour soup. I order it anytime I get take-out Chinese food, and enjoy it every time (though perhaps the experience never quite matches up to the one my Mom and I had at that café).
Just recently, as the chill of winter set in, I made my own hot and sour soup. I used Mark Bittman’s recipe from The Best Recipes in the World and it was delicious. For the most part, I followed the recipe as it was, but I couldn't find the correct mushrooms or the lily buds the recipe called for, so I used a package of mixed dried mushrooms and it worked beautifully. It made the soup a little different from what I've had at restaurants, but in a good way. If you’re a fan of porcini, Portobello, shiitake, oyster, and cremini mushrooms, what's not to like? And I think the real thing to love when it comes to hot and sour soup is the broth, and this is where you get to have some fun.

First of all, as with any soup, use a good quality stock that you love the taste of. Homemade is always best, but your favorite store-bought stock is also good. And to get that signature hot and sour flavor, add your sesame oil, pepper and rice vinegar in small increments, tasting all the way, to ensure that you get exactly the flavor you want. Personally, I like the soup to have a good bite of sourness and just a bit of spiciness in the background, so I go a little heavier on the rice vinegar and a little lighter on the pepper. It's all about getting the balance that you want, so take your time with it. Andrew and I had big steaming bowls of this for dinner with fried spring rolls--it was a delicious and memorable meal.

Hot and Sour Soup
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s The Best Recipes in the World
Makes 4 servings

1 tsp. Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
3 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. dark sesame oil
3 tbsp. cornstarch
½ lb. lean boneless pork loin, chicken breast, or flank steak, cut into thin shreds against the grain (I used pork, and probably will again the next time I make this)
6 cups good quality chicken stock
2 garlic cloves, minced
1” piece ginger, peeled and minced
5 dried black mushrooms, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
5 dried Chinese wood ear mushrooms, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
10 dried lily buds, soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes
(For the last 4 ingredients above, a mixture of varieties of dried mushrooms can be substituted)
½ lb. extra-firm tofu, cut into small cubes
¼ cup rice vinegar, or more to taste
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
½ cup chopped scallion

Whisk together the wine and 1 tsp. each of the soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Combine the meat shreds with this mixture to marinate while you combine the stock with the garlic and ginger in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Drain the mushrooms and lily buds (if using), trim off all the hard ends, cut into thin slices, and add to the stock. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes.

Bring the stock back to a boil over medium heat and add the meat. Stir to make sure the pieces do not stick together and cook until the meat loses its pinkness, about 3 minutes. then add the tofu, vinegar, pepper, and remaining soy sauce. Reduce the heat to low again and simmer for 5 minutes.

Mix the remaining cornstarch with ¼ cup cold water and stir that mixture into the soup until it thickens, about 1 minute. Continue to stir and pour in the eggs in a slow stream. The eggs should form thin, almost transparent ribbons. Remove from the heat and season with the remaining sesame oil. Add more vinegar and pepper to adjust to taste, testing all the way to get the flavor you want. Garnish with cilantro and scallion and serve hot.

For vegetarian hot and sour soup, omit the meat and add ½ lb. more tofu and ¼ lb. slivered bamboo shoots. Substitute vegetable stock for chicken stock.


  1. That was a memorable bowl of hot and sour soup!! It was fun reading your story. I think I'll go make some...
    XXOO Mom

  2. i love hot and sour soup and i have never made my own... will definitely try this, but will remember it's not a quick-fix ;-)