We’ve been thinking about Chinese takeout a lot lately. More specifically, we’ve been thinking about our stance on the Peking Kitchen’s, Hunan Garden’s, and Jade Palace’s of the world…and wondering, do we relegate these operations’ offerings to artery-clogging, usually neon-orange, MSG-laden, late-night fodder? Or is there something to be said for Sesame Chicken, your favorite takeout BBQ ribs, or the Beef Lo Mein that you find yourself craving at inappropriate hours of the day?
Because although some of these dishes may be a little more Daniel Boone than they are Confucius, they have a place in our culinary hearts. It may not be gourmet, but there’s an art to doing these dishes right.
My grandparents owned a takeout restaurant.
It was called Sun Hing. They set up shop in a pretty rough New Jersey neighborhood, where my grandfather would churn out his famed fried chicken wings, shrimp with lobster sauce, and fried rice. My parents and I were talking about the old restaurant days, and it got us thinking…we should do a series on how to make these dishes. Not trying to imitate the uninspired grease trap food that you might have been exposed to…but how to really do each dish right. We’ve got a few of these coming up. It was fun to see my dad brush up on old skills gleaned from experiences helping out at the restaurant.
So here’s our first recipe:
Hot and sour soup can be found on any takeout menu or Chinese buffet line in the US. It ranges in quality and flavor from awesomely delicious to lukewarm, tasteless, and gloopy. I’ve never thought to make it myself and usually resigned myself to the luck of the draw when it came to ordering it. So imagine my surprise when my dad said that he knew exactly how to make it.
He made this the other day, and it was probably the best version of hot and sour soup that I’ve had. Plus, when you make it at home, you can control the level of hotness and sourness yourself. I’m weird, so I’m crazy for anything with vinegar in it. If you’re like me, just add some more vinegar to your bowl. If you like it hotter, add more white pepper or chili flakes.
This soup is like…the most authentic take-out hot and sour soup you’ve ever had, and yet…WAY better than all those take-out places combined. See for yourself! There are a couple funky ingredients in here that aren’t exactly on every grocery store shelf in America, but this will give you a good excuse to really get to know your local Asian market and/or discover the wealth of possibilities that lie in online shopping.
- ¼ cup cornstarch, plus 1 teaspoon
- ¼ cup water
- 1 to 2 dried red chili peppers
- 3 oz. pork shoulder or loin
- ½ teaspoon oil
- ¼ cup soaked dried lily flower
- ¼ cup soaked wood ears
- ¼ cup soaked dried shiitake mushrooms
- 1 small block of spiced tofu (1/4 cup)
- ¼ cup packaged firm tofu
- ¼ cup winter bamboo shoots (canned is ok and fresh is better if you can find it)
- 2 eggs
- 1 scallion
- 8 cups chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon fresh ground white pepper
- 2 teaspoon dark soy or mushroom soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce or seasoned soy sauce
- Salt to taste
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1 pinch of sugar
Mix ¼ cup cornstarch with an equal amount of water and use a spoon to stir until completely dissolved.
Cut the dried chile peppers in half discard the seeds. Mince them up and set aside.
Slice the pork into small strips and place into a bowl with the last teaspoon of cornstarch and ½ teaspoon oil. Stir it all together.
Soak the dried lily flower, wood ears, and mushrooms for an hour or two until hydrated. Once they’re ready, slice the mushrooms and give the wood ears a rough chop. Trim the tough ends off the lily flowers and cut them in half.
Cut the spiced tofu and the firm tofu into 2-inch long and ¼-inch thick pieces.
Slice the winter bamboo shoots into the same shape. Beat the two eggs in a bowl. Wash and chop the scallion and set aside.
Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a wok or pot and add the pork. Stir to ensure the slices are not clumped together. Skim off any foam that floats to the top.
Add the chili pepper, white pepper and both soy sauces, and check the soup for salt. Add the lily flowers, wood ears, mushrooms and bamboo shoots and bring the soup to a simmer. Add the two kinds of tofu, sesame oil, vinegar and a pinch of sugar and stir. It should start to look and smell like the real thing about now!
Use a spoon to remix your cornstarch slurry in the bowl so it’s all combined. Bring the mixture to a simmer and use your soup ladle and stir the soup at the center of the wok in steady a circular motion to make a whirlpool while slowly pouring the corn starch slurry in a thin stream. This prevents the cornstarch from clumping. Stop when you are about ¾ of the way done with your slurry to check the consistency of the soup. It should be thick enough to coat your spoon or ladle. Add the rest if needed.
Keep the soup simmering and use the same technique with the beaten eggs and again, make sure the motion is fast enough or you will end up with egg clumps instead of the beautiful swirls or egg “flowers” (which is what the Chinese call it).
Garnish with the chopped scallions and serve.