You will probably never believe this, but South Jersey wasn’t exactly a mecca of international cuisine in the 80’s. I know, hard to believe, but my idea of chinese was the sweet and sour dipping sauce for your McNuggets. yeesh.
But sometime when I was in middle school, we branched out in search of exotic flavors. By this time, there was a plethora of chinese restaurants popping up in strip malls, typically with at least one of these words in the title: Jade, Panda, Szechuan, or Wok. I will never know what it was that possessed SUE! to take us there (you can be sure my Dad didn’t make the request), but one evening we all piled into the ol’ Buick and went to Szechuan King on Route 130 in Delran. (Conveniently located next door to the Red Lobster in case you need a backup.) Maybe we were all drunk on the MSG, but it was a hit.
And from that day forth, we were all chinese food fans. We ordered a wide range of foods there: chicken with broccoli, beef with broccoli, and shrimp with broccoli. (I never said we were an adventurous bunch.) If I was a betting woman, I’d say those are still my parents’ top picks. Though maybe not the beef so much – red meat, you know, gotta keep it healthy.
I do remember going to get chinese with a friend at some point during those early chinese days, and she ordered the scallion pancake. Oh how the great gates of The East opened up for me that day! How delicious – flaky pastry that you could slather in that unctuously salty dipping sauce. From here I believe we branched out to add the Poo-Poo platter to our regular orderings – that great leaning tower of appetizer heaven, complete with teriyaki beef skewers that stuck out of the top like sparklers. (My brother’s favorite.) We were so cosmopolitan. So worldly. So oriental.
Well, despite the fact that chinese food made up 1/2 of all college students’ diets at my alma mater, I resisted. And to this day, I don’t eat a ton of chinese out at restaurants, but I do love to play with the flavors at home. And one of my favorites is Hot and Sour Soup. In some old chinese manuscript somewhere, it says that every chinese restaurant lunch special must come with hot and sour soup. Fine by me, I love the stuff. But the thing is, I really don’t like mushrooms all that much. So I set out to create my own version that showcases that wonderful yin-and-yang of sweet and sour instead of mushrooms. It has taken significant research, experimentation, and taste testing. I’m happy to announce that I can put this puppy to bed: my sweet and sour soup is perfect. Well, according to my taste buds. And hopefully, yours, too.
This recipe goes together in a flash, and is a low calorie dinner that feels quite substantial. There are a few ingredients that you may not have in your pantry, but they are easily found in most grocery stores, or you can use the commonly found substitutions that are noted. The soup also reheats nicely, so make a double batch and take it for lunch tomorrow. Enjoy!
Hot & Sour Soup
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Time to Prepare: 30 minutes
3/4 cup thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 teaspoon peanut or canola oil
2 teaspoons grated garlic
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
3 cups chicken stock
1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 pound extra firm tofu, drained & diced in 1/2” cubes
2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar (white vinegar may be substituted)
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil
1/2 – 1 teaspoon ground white pepper (freshly ground black pepper can be substituted)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup bean sprouts, rinsed
2 scallions, thinly sliced
Heat peanut oil over medium heat in a medium-sized sauce pan. Add mushrooms, garlic, and ginger and saute – stirring frequently – until mushrooms have softened, 4 – 5 minutes. Do not let the garlic burn.
Add the chicken stock and 1 cup water and bring to a boil.
Add the soy sauce and tofu, and return to simmer. Simmer 5 minutes.
Mix cornstarch and 1/4 cup water in a small bowl to completely dissolve cornstarch. Whisk into soup, return to a simmer, stirring continuously until the soup has thickened, about 5 minutes.
Add vinegar, sesame oil, and pepper. Taste and adjust with additional vinegar and pepper.
Beat egg in a small dish, and slowly pour into the simmering soup, swirling the soup to evenly disburse the egg into ribbons.
Serve, garnished with bean sprouts and scallions.
If you don’t have sesame oil, you can omit it from the recipe, however it adds a deep, dark, almost burned flavor to the soup that’s quite nice. You can purchase a small jar quite inexpensively from the international aisle of most grocery stores, and it keeps forever, so it’s not a bad item to pick up.
The hot and sour characteristics of the soup come from the white pepper and vinegar. Start with the proportions above, and adjust to your individual tastes. The two flavors wax and wane complimentary, so if it gets too hot, simply add more vinegar. If it gets too sour, simply add more pepper.
Fresh ginger can be purchased in most grocery stores, often found with the more exotic produce. It looks like a gnarled root (which it is). Look for pieces with tight, smooth skin that’s not dry or shriveled, and a bright butter-colored interior. To use, peel the skin with a vegetable peeler, and grate the ginger with a microplane or similar grater with very small holes. Ginger can be stored in the freezer, unpeeled for up to a year. To use, simply run the frozen root under warm water, pat dry, and peel the skin off the desired amount. Then return the unused portion to the freezer.
If you like this recipe and are anxious to experiment with more (easy) asian flavors, consider cooking up my Chow Mein.