Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

I meant for this to be my dinner appetizer, but I spooned so much into my bowl that it became a meal.

Hot and sour soup didn't appear in my childhood of Cantonese home dinners. It did, however, appear in my Chinese-American childhood, as a Sichuan/Northern Chinese dish that became bastardized for the greasy take-out joints of suburban America. I have had one too many versions that were so thick and rubbery I could stretch them with my hands like Silly Putty. Here is some advice to the aforementioned Chinese restaurants in the US: Cornstarch is never a main ingredient; just use sparingly.

(From upper left: Wood ear, lily buds, fresh bamboo, shiitake mushrooms. Bowl: fresh firm tofu.)

In the US, hot and sour soup also tends to lack the lily buds, shiitake mushrooms, and bamboo shoots that make it a nutrient-rich, even somewhat refined, dish. (This is the Chinese version, not to be confused with Vietnamese, Filipino, or Thai hot and sour soups.) I also like to add wood ear and tofu for texture variation. Today I also used fresh instead of canned bamboo shoots, which I couldn't find when I went food shopping this morning.

The amount of pepper and vinegar here is enough to make the soup sufficiently, and respectively, "hot" and "sour", without being overwhelming. But if you like more bite and tang, feel free to add a tiny bit more. And remember to drizzle in the egg after adding the vinegar, or else the egg will just disperse and give the soup a cloudy appearance.

And finally, a tablespoon of cornstarch goes a long, long way.


Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

Serves 2 as a meal, or 4 to 6 as an appetizer

  • 6 or 7 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/2 cup dried lily buds
  • 1/2 cup dried wood ear (also called cloud ear or black tree fugus)
  • 1/2 cup bamboo shoots, sliced, fresh or canned
  • 6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 cup firm or extra firm tofu, sliced into strips
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 3 tablespoons vinegar (I used dark, but white or cider vinegar also fine)
  • 2 teaspoons sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch, dissolved in 2 tablespoons water

1. Soak the mushrooms, lily buds, and wood ear in room temperature water for 20 to 30 minutes. Squeeze out excess water. Thinly slice mushrooms and wood ear. Slice rough black ends off lily buds and cut them in half. Rinse bamboo shoots and thinly slice.

2. Bring water to boil. Toss in mushrooms, lily buds, wood ear, and bamboo. Simmer for 10 minutes. Add tofu and soy sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.

3. Add the vinegar, sesame oil, and pepper. Drizzle egg into the pot while stirring so that egg rivulets form. Stir in cornstarch mixture to thicken. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then reduce heat. Salt to taste. Spoon into individual bowls and serve.