Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The story of how I made hot and sour soup

When I was a young person living in a studio apartment in the East Village, relying on post-World Trade Center unemployment checks to survive, my comfort food was hot and sour soup from Fei Ma restaurant. Fei Ma was a tiny, shitty Chinese takeaway with what was probably completely unremarkable food, but to my eager and unrefined palate, it was exotic and perhaps most importantly, cheap.

 Since then, of course, I've been to China, and I realize that the food I ate from that hole-in-the-wall restaurant was nothing like what they serve in China. And frankly, I don't care. My experience of the food in China was difficult -- the stress involved in trying to get a delicious meal nearly negated the enjoyment of said delicious meal. Fei Ma, on the other hand, was ridiculously easy. I'd call, and they'd arrive, climbing the four floors of stairs to my door. Pretty much the opposite of my experience in China where I mostly got inexplicable combinations of food--likely due to my inability to speak Mandarin--which waitresses gathered to watch me attempt to eat, tittering and taking photographs.

 I sometimes think back to the days, in the early aughties, when I thought that a delivery of hot and sour soup could solve all of my problems, and I pine for that magical elixer. So I decided to learn how to make it. I've been testing a few recipes and finally found one that I like. I made it for my Chinese-American friend here in Phnom Penh who feigned approval, but I could read the look on her face which said "This is not how my mother makes hot and sour soup." But she had seconds, so as the kids say, wevs.

As close to American-style Chinese take-out as you'll find in Phnom Penh.

 So when you tell me that this hot and sour soup I've made isn't authentic, please take note that I DON'T CARE. I don't care if real Chinese people in China even eat hot and sour soup and if they do, that the hot and sour soup is nothing like this one or that lily buds are like, totally required. I don't care. I've finally learned to make hot and sour soup exactly like an American Chinese takeaway and I'm pretty pleased with myself.

 The recipe I am using is very close to the recipe by Bruce Cost from Gourmet Mag in 2005. (Note that he wrote an entire cookbook on how to cook American takeaway-style Chinese food.) I tried Mark Bittman's recipe and was astounded by how far off it was--it didn't even include white pepper, which is, frankly, ridiculous. Anyway, here's my variation of Bruce Cost's recipe. His called for dried lily buds, which I found here in Cambodia but what I found was probably not what he was talking about because they were weird and hard and not delicious. So I eliminated them and made some minor changes in the amounts of other things because some of them didn't make sense.


5 ounces boneless pork loin, cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
5 small Chinese dried black mushrooms (shitakke-type)
5 small dried tree ear mushrooms
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sliced bamboo shoots, cut into small strips
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned)
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons oil
4-6 cups chicken broth
4 oz firm tofu, rinsed and drained, then cut into 1/4-inch-thick strips
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground white pepper
2 tablespoons thinly sliced scallion greens
2 tablespoons fresh whole cilantro leaves


Toss pork with dark soy sauce in a bowl until pork is well coated.

Soak black and tree ear mushrooms in 3 cups boiling-hot water in another bowl (water should cover mushrooms), turning over black mushrooms occasionally, until softened, about 30 minutes. (Tree ears will expand significantly.) Cut out and discard stems from black mushrooms, then squeeze excess liquid from caps into bowl and thinly slice caps. Remove tree ears from bowl, reserving liquid, and trim off any hard nubs. If large, cut tree ears into bite-size pieces. Stir together 1 cup mushroom-soaking liquid (keep the remainder in case you want more liquid later) with cornstarch in a small bowl and set aside.

Cover bamboo shoots with cold water by 2 inches in a small saucepan, then bring just to a boil (to remove bitterness) and drain in a sieve.

Stir together vinegars, light soy sauce, sugar, and salt in another small bowl.

Heat a wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact. Pour peanut oil down side of wok, then swirl oil, tilting wok to coat sides. Add pork and stir-fry until meat just changes color, about 1 minute, then add black mushrooms, tree ears, and bamboo shoots and stir-fry 1 minute.

Add broth and bring to a boil, then add tofu. Return to a boil and add vinegar mixture. Stir cornstarch mixture, then add to broth and return to a boil, stirring. (Liquid will thicken.) Reduce heat to moderate and simmer 1 minute.

Beat eggs with a fork and add a few drops of sesame oil. Add eggs to soup in a thin stream, stirring slowly in one direction with a spoon. Stir in white pepper, then drizzle in remaining sesame oil and divide among into bowls. Sprinkle with scallions and cilantro before serving.
And you're done. Just like Fei Ma would have made it (although slightly less gloopy and more packed with the expensive ingredients than at a takeaway).


  1. Oh, my god, you've gone over to the other side, haven't you? It's *takeout*, not *takeaway*!

  2. Could I leave out the cornstarch?

  3. Yep, the corn starch is completely unnecessary. It only serves to make the soup a little bit thicker.