Like many other people who live in northern Wisconsin, I have friends who think ketchup is a little spicy and that anything not pure white probably has too much black pepper in it. My parents were not that provincial in their tastes, but they would not have asked for seconds if I ever had had the courage to serve them hot and sour soup.
Good hot and sour soup is spicy, but once you get used to it, the heat of the peppers perfectly complements the acidity of the vinegar, and the two flavors meld with the other ingredients to produce a dish that you will learn to lust after. I speak from experience. I have been comparing hot and sour soups at Chinese restaurants since I had my first bowlful in Madison, Wisconsin, in the spring of of 1962.
For some reason I had gotten the idea that making hot and sour soup was something best left to Chinese cooks making it from a recipe passed on to them by their mothers or grandmothers. I thought that hot and sour soup was complicated to make and required foreign ingredients like Chinese black mushrooms and dried lily buds. And every hot and sour soup I liked had tofu in it. Fearful that one of my carnivore friends would see me, I had never had the courage to buy a block of the stuff.
All this changed when our friend Lorrie sent me her recipe for Burritos Deliciosos and followed it with the vegetarian version made with tofu. Lorrie’s recipe made wonderful burritos, but I was curious about using tofu instead of chicken. We have a vegetarian grandson who might be persuaded to try one of grandpa’s burritos made with curdled soy protein.
A few weeks ago I was shopping at Trader Joe’s in Woodbury and as far I could tell, there was no one in the store who knew me. I could buy some tofu anonymously. I looked around one last time, then asked a clerk to take me to the tofu and tell me what kind to buy. He did so, and I came home with a pound of super firm tofu in a brown paper bag.
Half of the tofu ended up in the vegetarian burritos, which were an unqualified success. The rest languished in the refrigerator while I wondered if I should wait until it got old and moldy. Jerri’s grandmother, who was a compulsive saver of leftovers, used to explain that she found it easier to throw something out after it had spoiled, and we sometimes feel the same way.
However, I had enjoyed a nice cup of hot and sour soup at one of our local Chinese buffets recently. Motivated by the memory of that cup of silky soup, I decided that the time had come to face the possibility of failure bravely and attempt to make hot and sour soup.
I checked some recipes on the web and improvised to produce a soup that Jerri and I thought was as good as any we had eaten in the past year. It was surprisingly easy to make. The most difficult part of the project was getting the proper pork chop. When I stepped up to the meat counter, I told the butcher that I wanted the smallest boneless pork chop he had. When he had it on the scale I asked what it weighed. “A little under two tenths,” he said.
“Too small,” I told him. It took him five tries to find a chop that weighed a little over a quarter of a pound.
“How about two chops?” he asked. I declined and told him I was following a recipe that called for a quarter pound pork chop.
“What are you making?” he inquired.
“Hot and sour soup,” I told him.
“Years ago,” he said, “when I lived in Anchorage, Alaska, there was a Chinese restaurant that made the best hot and sour soup I have ever had. I used to order a bowl every time I went in. How do you make yours?”
“This is my first time,” I answered.
“Let me know how it turns out,” he said.
Jerri suggested that I take him a taste, but we ate the leftovers for lunch the next day.
If you like hot and sour soup, here is a recipe that you really should try.
1 oz. package dried porcini or shiitake mushrooms
3 1/4 cups water, divided
3 chicken bouillon cubes
1 small lean boneless pork chop (about 1/4 lb.)
Dash of black pepper
1 quart chicken broth
2 T soy sauce
6 to 8 oz. extra or super firm tofu
1 can bamboo shoots
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/4 – 1/2 tsp. chili paste
4 T white vinegar
4 T cornstarch
4 T water
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
2 green onions
Start by preparing the mushrooms and meat about half an hour before you want to begin assembling the soup, which takes only a few minutes. Heat a cup of water to boiling and pour it over the dried mushrooms in a small bowl. Stir them a couple of times to make sure that all the mushrooms are rehydrated. Set the bowl aside for about thirty minutes.
Slice the pork into very thin strips about an inch and a half long. Put the pork into a small saucepan along with a cup of water, a bouillon cube and a dash of black pepper. Bring the pan to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer the meat covered for ten minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the meat finish cooking in the broth.
Drain and slice the bamboo shoots into matchsticks. Cut the tofu into quarter inch strips about one and one-half inches long. Drain and thinly slice the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Clean and chop the onions into eighth-inch rounds.
Put the chicken broth, a cup of water, two tablespoons of soy sauce and two bouillon cubes into a three quart saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil, then add the mushrooms, the mushroom water, the bamboo shoots and the pork with the broth. Bring the pan back to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about three minutes.
Add the tofu, white pepper, chili paste, sesame oil and white vinegar. Raise the heat slightly and stir the soup as it returns to a boil.
Meanwhile, dissolve the cornstarch in a quarter cup of cold water and whisk it into the soup. Cook the soup for three minutes until it thickens slightly, then remove it from the heat.
Beat the egg in a cup or small bowl until it is lemon yellow, then slowly dribble it into the soup, stirring very gently with a fork. Stir in the chopped onions. Taste and adjust the seasoning. You may want to add a little more vinegar or chili paste.
Serve with bread and salad.
NOTES: You will find chili paste in the Asian or ethnic food section of any good supermarket. Chili paste is not chili sauce, which is a variety of ketchup. Chili paste is made of ground up chili peppers with extra heat added. It keeps years in the refrigerator, so a bottle lasts a long time. WARNING: Do not try tasting a spoonful of chili paste. You will regret it.