Crunchy wood ear, soft tofu cubes, silky egg ribbons, tangy vinegar, and an umami-laden chili broth makes the classic hot and sour soup a delicious bowl of bold flavours and textures that are surprisingly easy to throw together. If you’re celebrating Chinese New Year, you’re going to want to start the feast with this appetizer, or do what I did and throw in fresh Shanghai noodles to soak up the delicious soup and make it into a main.
While hot and sour soup was never much of a fixture at our family’s Chinese New Year’s dinners (a good chunk of my family can’t even handle the spice of black pepper), my mom and resident Chinese-cooking expert Uncle Simon gave me some tips when I was developing this recipe. For them, the key is using “toban jan”, a fermented paste made of chilies and beans used throughout in Sichuan cooking. This is what’s going to give you that deep reddish-brown colour and that signature spicy umami kick. You can find this in the Asian aisle at the supermarket and it goes wonderfully with tofu, chicken, stir-frys, and on top of rice and noodle dishes. Think of it as Chinese sriracha.
For the sour component, I was advised by both of them to use ketchup. I love them both (especially if they’re reading this post) but I substituted the ketchup with a sharper, less sugary rice vinegar that turned out quite well. If any readers decide to listen to my mom and use ketchup, please tweet me @karonliu and let me know how it goes. A tip I did use was cooking the noodles separately in water rather than in the soup. This is because the noodles have a light coating of flour, which would leave a chalky taste in the broth.
One final note: wood ear mushrooms are sold dried at the Chinese grocer and need to be soaked in boiling water for 30 minutes before they’re ready to be eaten. Shimeji mushrooms can be found fresh at the Asian grocer (along with the Shanghai noodles), but if you can’t find them use another slightly chewy mushroom like enoki or shiitake.
For the soup base
1 litre no salt-added chicken broth
3 tablespoons Chinese chili-bean paste (the anglicized name is “toban djan”)
3 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoon cornstarch
For the pork
1/2 pound pork loin, sliced into long and thin strips (about a cup)
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
For the toppings
4 wood ear mushrooms
2 ounces shimeji mushrooms (about a cup)
1 cup firm tofu, cut into cubes
1 large egg
4 ounces fresh Shanghai noodles (about 1/4 package)
Chopped green onions for garnish
- If your wood ear mushrooms are dehydrated, reconstitute them by soaking them for 30 minutes in boiling water. Do this ahead of time, or even the day before. Store the hydrated mushrooms on a plate with a damp paper towel draped on top.
- In a medium-sized soup pot, bring the chicken broth to a boil.
- In the meantime, mix all the ingredients for the pork together (meat, soy sauces, sugar, cornstarch, and ginger) in a bowl. Set aside and let marinate for five minutes.
- In a slightly oiled pan, sear the marinated pork until it starts to brown, about one or two minutes. Set aside.
- When the broth is boiling, add the chili paste and vinegar. Stir until the paste has completely dissolved. Chop the wood ear mushrooms into smaller slices and add them to the pot along with the simeji mushrooms. Stir and add in the cornstarch to thicken the soup. Bring to a boil and add the tofu and pork. Whisk the eggs together and add them to the boiling soup very slowly in a thin stream. Keep the soup to a simmer.
- Bring a fresh pot of water to a boil and cook the noodles until they are al dente, about two to three minutes. Drain and set aside.
- To plate, pour 3/4 of the soup into a large bowl. Pile the cooked Shanghai noodles high on top in the centre, and then ladle the rest of the soup around the noodles. Garnish with green onions and serve immediately. Serves two as an appetizer, or one as a main dish.
Karon Liu is a freelance food writer based in Toronto who is slightly lactose intolerant but will otherwise eat and cook anything.