Did you think this winter would never end? Have you ever been so sad, in pain, or discouraged, you couldn’t imagine ever feeling ok again?
Hot and sour soup always helps me to find the “silver lining” no matter how dark the cloud. There are a bunch of reasons for this. The first and biggest reason is that I learned to make it during a very hard time. So, whenever I assemble the ingredients, I think about how I have integrated my past and learned to be happy in the face of life’s overwhelming challenges.
Along the same lines, thinking about the person who taught me to make it always reminds me that nothing is all bad. This woman was a friend of my parents; her mother was Chinese and her father Italian; she was an incredible cook of both Asian and European food. She was one of the most angry people I’ve ever known, and she and was staggeringly cruel to me. It still stuns me to think about it more than 30 years later. However, from her, I learned not only to make this soup, but also Chinese dumplings. Worth it? I still can’t say, but I do love both delicious Asian specialties.
And finally, there are the flavors in the soup itself. Bitter and sour. They are taste sensations that were a signal to our hunter/gatherer ancestors that a food should be avoided or used only with great care. Yet, with the other elements in the bowl, most of us find the combination incredibly appealing.
Hot and sour soup is the source of my most memorable embarrassing culinary mishap. I had just met my husband Bob, my brother Steven was still alive, and our family got together at my parent’s house in Oakland for one of our famous Chinese Feasts. It was my job to make the soup. I was proud as I served it, aware that my new boyfriend was impressed by my cooking.
But the soup tasted oddly flat. It is supposed to be richly sour and peppery; it had none of its characteristic zing in spite of the fact that I’d added plenty of vinegar. So, Steven went to the kitchen and brought the bottle of rice wine vinegar into the dining room. He added a splash to his soup and it foamed like a tiny volcano. We all tried adding vinegar and we all had little Haleakalas in our bowls. We were mystified and until I realized I had reached for the yellow box of baking soda instead of the yellow box of cornstarch!!! I’ve never been allowed to forget it6. When we were all together for my Dad’s 80th birthday in February, we had a Chinese Feast, I made the soup, and the story was told again!
Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 2 as a meal (along with a salad)
The classic version I learned years ago was made with strips of pork rather than with shrimp; you may certainly use pork if you prefer. Or leave out both and make it vegetarian. We also used tree fungus, tiger lily buds and bamboo shoots. I often do use these things, but packed them all away for the kitchen renovation. I like the simplicity of this recipe. Paleo eaters are welcome to skip the tofu.
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
12 oz. cremini or shiitake mushrooms, or a combination, sliced
1 package firm or extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
1 carrot, julienned
2 scallions, 1 sliced lengthwise, 1 crosswise for garnish
2 tbs. cornstarch
1 tbs. soy sauce
1 tsp. black pepper
2 tbs. rice wine vinegar
2 tsp. asian sesame oil
1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined*
asian chili oil, to taste
*Make sure you get shrimp that have not been soaked in salt or stp!
Reserve 1/3 cup stock in a cup. Bring the remaining stock to boil in a large pot. While that happens, beat the egg with ½ tsp. of the cornstarch. Mix the remaining cornstarch into the reserved stock.
When the stock is at a rolling boil, add the pepper, soy, mushrooms, carrots and scallion strips, adjust the heat to simmer and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Give the cornstarch slurry another good stir and add it to the pot. Bring back to boil, stirring; it will thicken. Take the pot off the heat; give the egg mixture another stir and pour into the pot in a thin stream. Place the pot back on the heat and stir gently.
Now, add the shrimp and cook for a minute or so until they are done. Be careful not to overcook or the shrimp will be tough. Add the vinegar, sesame oil, and chili oil. Taste and adjust vinegar, soy, and chili oil; you want assertive hot and sour with a good snap of salt. Garnish with scallions.