I’ll Be Damned: Hot and Sour Soup

November 6, 2019

 

You may be aware–I wasn’t–that the last recipe I posted on this site was in January 2019. As in, almost a year ago. As in, right before my sister decided to remove herself from this planet. When the year was new and I was hopeful for a happy, healthy, vibrant New Year.

Yeah. That dream sort of went up in smoke, didn’t it?

When Mama died, I found solace in the kitchen. I stirred batter and carefully poured it into pans. I dredged cutlets and sizzled them in a hot pan. I made things that were relics of my childhood–things I hadn’t made in years–hotwater cornbread, chicken a’la king, pasta primavera with lots of butter and cheese and basil from the garden. I even flirted with oatmeal again, for Chrissakes (a fail. I just ain’t an oatmealer, y’all). I found myself unable to sit still, beckoned by a warm kitchen, yearning for the heat and the smell of something made with intention and love.

Not so with my sister.

She thought cooking was for peasants and frankly, would far prefer to drink her dinner than eat it. Mama and I would spend hours in the kitchen, but she skedaddled right out of there, wanting no part of it. This was fine with me, but when she died, I had no place to go.

Where was I supposed to find comfort? The bar?

Even I knew that was a bad idea.

Mama’s death galvanized me into action, even if it was something as simple as making dinner. As long as I kept moving, arms deep in dough, I could get through the day.

My sister’s death sent me to the couch. And the bed. And paralyzing inertia.

To the Cracker Barrel.

I have not coped well and I still am not right in the head or the spirit. It’s hard to find a home for anything that’s clanking around inside me. I am not proud of this.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve cooked, I have fed my family, but it’s been a joyless enterprise. It felt like work; another burden to shoulder. Often I made dinner and couldn’t drum up enough enthusiasm to eat it. Suddenly, food started sticking in my throat. I’d gag and choke on anything solid, like my beloved rice and potatoes and pasta. I resorted to foods that slid down the gullet without effort, as if even the act of swallowing was too much to bear.

So. I have cooked and eaten endless upon endless pots of soup since my sister took her life. It’s the only food that feels right in my stomach, and you have to understand that I’m a girl who used to only resort to soup when sick. But I guess you could say my soul has been sick, so maybe it makes sense.

Bowls of pho, congee, chicken noodle, minestrone, broccoli cheese. They have kept me alive and kickin’, even if I don’t feel like it. I have found a completely new appreciation for soup.

 

And, because I am WEIRD, the time soup tastes best to me is in the morning. Yeppers, I eat soup for breakfast. All. The. Time.

I slam my coffee and sip my soup and check emails and think about writing (and often fail beyond that). The couch still has a powerful pull, even now. But mornings come no matter how soul-weary we are, and soup helps. It especially helps because I often have restless nights and wake feeling parched, cotton-mouthed.

“Shit, it feels like I ate a freaking hamster or something,” I complain to my husband.

Thus, soup.

 

The one soup I crave but have failed to successfully make is Chinese hot and sour soup, which I love but cannot have access to because we have the shittiest damn Chinese food in the world where I live. We don’t even bother ordering it anymore. One takeout order gave me hot and sour soup that had–gag–maraschino cherries floating in it. It is truly that bad.

A good hot and sour soup engages your tastebuds and makes you sit up and take notice. It’s almost bracingly hot and pungent and savory and full of good things that make you feel alive. Some of those things are a total pain in the ass to find in the Rocky Mountains; traditional hot and sour soup has wood ear mushrooms and lily buds and Szechuan peppercorns. Good luck, asshole.

 

I’ve been on a quest to find a reasonable facsimile of traditional hot and sour soup that is even halfway acceptable, and it’s been a struggle. I have tried no less than seven recipes for the stuff and all of them have been lackluster at best. No heat, no zing, no complexity. But this week, I tried a version that comes pretty darn close without my having to outsource lily buds. You DO need Chinese black vinegar, which King Google should help you find quite nicely. There is no substitute and don’t even think about it. Just get the dang stuff. And the chile oil. Get one with some balls on it, mmmkay, because hot and sour soup should be fiery.

 

Admission: this soup is still quite a pain in the arse to make. It looks so simple, but is time consuming, it uses quite a few bowls and dishes, and there are some steps that seem fussy (cornstarch and egg, I’m talking to you) but they are necessary and if you are faced with a pantry of ingredients and a chilly, miserable day, consider making the effort. Put on some music, even songs that remind you of who you miss. Soothe yourself in stir and chop and julienne.

Remember, for a moment, what life tastes like.

 

Hot and Sour Soup

from Cook’s Illustrated

serves about 6

 

7 ounces extra-firm tofu

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1 (6-ounce) center cut pork loin chop, trimmed and cut into very thin matchstick slices

3 tablespoons plus one teaspoon cold water

1 large egg

6 cups chicken broth

1 (5-ounce) can bamboo shoots, sliced lenthwise into thin strips

4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced 1/4-inch thick

5 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar

2 teaspoons hot chili oil

1 teaspoon ground pepper or ground white pepper

3 thinly sliced fresh scallions

Red chile flakes, for extra heat (optional)

 

Place tofu on a paper towel-lined plate, top with a heavy plate and weigh it down with 2 heavy cans. Let the tofu drain until it has released about 1/2 cup liquid, about 15 minutes. Cut into small cubes and set aside.

Meanwhile, whisk 1 tablespoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch and sesame oil together in a medium bowl. Add pork, toss to coat and let marinate for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.

Combine 3 tablespoons cold water with 3 tablespoons cornstarch in a small bowl. Mix the remaining 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch with remaining 1 teaspoon cold water in another small bowl. Add egg and beat until combined.

Bring chicken broth to a boil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add bamboo shoots and mushrooms and simmer until just tender, about 5 minutes.

Add marinated pork and tofu cubes to broth and stir vigorously to break up pork; simmer until pork is no longer pink, about 2-3 minutes.

Stir water and cornstarch mixture to recombine, add to soup and increase heat to medium high. Cook, stirring, until soup thickens, about a minute. Stir in Chinese vinegar, chili oil, pepper and remaining soy sauce. Remove from heat.

Without stirring soup, use a soupspoon to slowly drizzle very thin streams of egg mixture into broth in a circular motion. Let soup sit for 1 minute, then return pan to medium-high heat. Bring soup just to a boil and immediately remove from heat. Stir the soup once gently to distribute egg. Sprinkle with sliced scallions and serve.

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