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Thursday, June 10, 2010

How to Cook Everything Project: Hot & Sour Soup

When you go to a Chinese restaurant, what soup do you choose? I almost always choose hot & sour, and when I come across a really great tasting version of it, I walk out of that restaurant with the resolve to make something just as good... if not better.

What ends up happening is my finding a recipe, whether it be from some random site online or a book that claims their method is "fool proof," and it disappointing me. So much so that I revert to using the soup mix and dealing with it... if I don't end up just ordering from the local take out.

Can the project save me? The answer to that is yes... yes I think it can.

The recipe calls for chicken stock or water. Water seemed flavorless so I opted for stock broth bouillon. Always good to have this in the pantry for those times when you need a flavored something. The directions for the bouillon I used calls for 1 teaspoon powder and 1 cup water. I still find that to be a bit too salty for my taste so I add an additional half cup or so. At the same time I was bringing the broth to a boil, I cooked the chicken breast that I would later shred. I think the next time I make this I'll try without mix/stock and see how much flavor the boiled chicken imparts on the water.

I'm pretty sure this is tree ear fungus on the left. Lily buds on the right. Both were soaked in hot water and drained. I overlooked the part where I was supposed to mince the fungus and shred the buds and just added to the soup as is. Mincing the fungus would have been good, especially now that I remember I'm not too fond of big chunks of it. As for the buds, I think next time I'll rinse them out at least one more time.


The recipe called for dried shiitake mushrooms, which I couldn't find a small package of in the Asian store. I considered fresh ones, but what they had didn't look that appealing either. Button mushrooms it is. Cleaned, sliced, added to the end of the cooking.

Keeping true to the minimalist title, Bittman only adds a few of the ingredients that I normally see in my hot & sour soup. It just didn't seem right, so I went ahead and added bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts to the soup. This may have played a factor in the corn starch issue, which I'll discuss later.

The chicken took a little over twenty minutes to cook, and was promptly removed from the liquid and allowed to cool. I gave it a Glee episode to cool down. Shredding was a pain in the neck, but I got through it. What I ended up with seemed a bit too much for all of it to go in the soup, so I set some aside to make chicken salad the next day.


Because I added additional water (and those extra ingredients), the amount of cornstarch the recipe calls for was not enough to thicken the soup. Sure, I could have added more to fix that, but it was getting late and I was getting hungry. Also, I have a bit of a problem anytime corn starch is needed as a thickener- is it just me, or do you have to use a whole lot before it starts to thicken up? I get worried that I'll mess up what I'm cooking and all that work will have been for nothing.


The eggs are added at the end since they don't take long to cook. I'm still working on the timing on when to stir the soup after adding the eggs so I end up with various sizes of cooked egg... instead of the scrambled mess usually end up with.

EDIT: Turns out it's not the timing, it's all about the tools and drizzle pattern. A search on Youtube resulted in this video from expertvillage and the cook's method of creating "a very nice pattern of egg drops."

The end result?


While not exactly what I order when I go out, it definitely hit the spot. I tinkered around with the amounts of soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame seed oil until it was just right. Definitely something I would make again.


In cooking this recipe, I came to the realization that you can hot & sour any broth-based soup, as long as you use five key ingredients. Can you guess what they are?

The five must have ingredients to achieve hot & sourdom: soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, sesame seed oil, pepper, and eggs. It is only after these five ingredients are added to the soup that the H&S transformation occurs.

The soy sauce lends to the color that you normally associate with H&S, along with earthiness and saltiness that round out the flavors. The rice wine vinegar is the sour aspect of the soup- I haven't tried making it with other vinegars, but in keeping with the Asian-ness of the dish, rice wine fits. The egg is pretty much the standard in what we expect from H&S soup (I'm referring to Americanized Chinese food... I'm not sure how it goes in an authentic Chinese version, and I'm definitely not talking about other Asian versions of H&S... like Tom Yum). The pepper covers the hot in the H&S, and last but not least... the sesame seed oil. If these five ingredients are key to hot & sourdom, then sesame seed oil is the leader of the bunch. For me, it's only after I add the oil that my taste buds send the message to my brain that I've got it.

To test this out, I took chicken noodle soup mix and added the five key ingredients. And it worked! To be really scientific, I should probably try it again, use another type of soup, have someone other than me attempt it, etc. And I have no problem doing that.

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