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Help me!! SOS! Hot and Sour Soup

I'm a South-East Asian cuisine fanatic, but I've been flirting with Chinese hot and sour soup for 2 years now. My efforts... stink. It tastes like nothing, and yet all recipes I've found seem to list the same ingredients. Please help me- how do you make rich, hearty, flavorful hot and sour soup?

**Here are some of my questions** :
- chile paste isn't hot, chile flakes don't do much either. We love spicy foods and end up adding hot sauce to the finished soup. How do you make it hot?
- I know that heat is all-important in Chinese cuisine. I put my stock pot on the double-boiler to make it as hot as possible... is this necessary?
- I've tried rice wine vinegar, a 50/50 split of rice wine vinegar with red wine vinegar, but still no taste.
- we like seafood or seafood wontons, rather than pork. Any ideas on proteins?
- my husband abhors mushrooms... does that impact the flavor of the soup?

**MY HOT & SOUR SOUP RECIPE
Serves 2-3
5 cups chicken broth
1 ½ tsp chile paste (or just add your favorite bottled hot sauce at the end)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup cornstarch stirred into ¼ cup water
Tofu sliced thin and long, shrimps (peeled and deveined) or scallops
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbsp sesame oil
2 tbsp double dark soy sauce
Green onions to garnish

Bring water to a boil and add chile paste, if using. Add tofu, pour in red wine vinegar and mix well. Add the meat or seafood, then stir in the cornstarch and water mixture. Stir constantly at a low boil for 5 minutes to thicken the broth. While stirring, add beaten eggs and let swirl for about one minute. Turn off heat and add sesame oil and soy sauce, stirring well. Garnish with green onions.

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  1. I thought the 'hot' in this soup was supposed to come from a generous amount of black pepper, or better yet white pepper.

    Regarding the vinegar, are you saying it isn't sour at all?

    3 Replies
    1. re: paulj

      It's sour, but just with no flavor. I'm reading since my post that part of the flavor in restaurant soups is Chinese Black Vinegar?

      1. re: homewithdogs

        I'd guess this. Black rice vinegar has a much more funky taste than white - if the soup isn't sour enough, I add more at the table.

      2. re: paulj

        Hi everybody, I just wanted to update this post with the results of Hot N Sour Soup: Round One. I used the following recipe and made modifications: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/577584. On my first shot, this was by far and away the VERY BEST hot N sour I've ever made. Thanks soo much to everyone in this post for the help. I could almost go back to my old recipe- just substituting white pepper and chili oil for chili flakes, and Chinese black vinegar for red wine/rice vinegar.

        For those interested, here are the changes we made for taste. The first flavor you get is the white pepper, which is dead-on from what you get at restaurants. After the first hit, though, it tastes watery and you don't get the sour. My husband and I poured over the stove for about 15 more minutes adding things and tinkering, with the final additions being:

        total of 3 tsp white pepper
        total of 1/2 tsp chili oil
        3 T plus 1.5 tsp Chinese mature (aged Black) vinegar
        1 T double-dark soy sauce and 1 T light soy sauce

      3. A lot of the recipes I've seen call for white vinegar and white pepper in generous amounts. You might try these, adding a bit at a time until you reach the levels you like. Black pepper has a different flavor and you could add some of that as well for a different type of burn. I would use about 1/2 tsp of each pepper to four cups of stock as a starting point.

        I also now use Sriracha instead of chili paste, right at the beginning, for heat. Just start adding and monitor the taste until it's to your liking. Also, Tabasco works great, as its vinegar base adds both hot and sour.

        Mushrooms will help amp up the flavor levels because they contain high levels of glutamic acid or glutamates, which are natural flavor boosters and give you that "umami" you hear so much about these days, but if you don't like them you could try a pinch of msg -- it occurs naturally in the mushrooms and there's nothing artificial in the stuff you buy at the store. But lots of folks are msg phobic so it's your decision.

        Proteins are up to you. I like to add thin strips of BBQ pork as well as fresh pork, but since you don't like pork, little raw bay shrimp (I see you already have shrimp in the recipe) stirred in at the end would be good with the egg. They'll cook immediately in the hot broth. You could matchstick slice chicken as well. I like the seafood wonton idea, even if it isn't traditional. I've also seen a few recipes with thinly-sliced beef.

        I think the double boiler is completely unnecessary, but I'm a little confused. Do you really mean a double boiler like when one pot sits in another over a bath of boiling water? This would be much, much cooler than a normal burner so it would do the opposite of making it as hot as possible. Or do you mean more like a double sized burner with more heat output to bring your stockpot to a boil faster? That's not really necessary either, as the stock can't get any hotter than the boiling point if it's not under pressure, so extreme heat output doesn't really help in this case.

        1 Reply
        1. re: acgold7

          I use dried mushrooms and use the liquid to the soup and it really ramps it up.

        2. In the area I am in it varies -
          At my favorite lunch place, it is awful - I have to skip it.
          There is a place that usually does not do well in health inspections where it is very good.
          I have not gotten it down myself. I (*gasp*) cheat and heat up the so-so stuff from a can when I have a cold and need some.

          1. In the rick Mooney fish book I think it is fish without a doubt there is a seafood (shrimp and catfish) hot and sour recipe however I haven't tried making it yet- its a really good book though made 4 recipes all great so far

            1. " rich, hearty, flavorful hot and sour soup"

              We've discussed the hot - white pepper and chile pepper to taste

              sour - most vinegar is diluted to 6%; rice vineger usually is 4%; if you want more sour, you have to use more vinegar

              rich - I take this to mean 'lots of body'; that comes from gelatin, i.e. a well made stock, though you can 'cheat' by adding some pure gelatin (Knox). ATK upped the richness of their quick beef stew this way. But the corn starch thickener commonly used in Chinese soups also gives this mouth feel

              hearty - to me that means more solids, such as mushrooms, especially tree ears. Mushrooms also add umami - savoriness. Another route to savoriness - msg.

              salt - lack of flavor may be due to under salting. Soy sauce is a common source of salt in Chinese cooking. I like to add salt gradually to soups until the 'flavors pop'.

              3 Replies
              1. re: paulj

                Thanks, paulj, your post is full of great thoughts!! I've wondered if my lack of mushrooms might contribute to lack of flavor, and even thought about using beef broth to add heartiness/umami. Any thoughts about beef broth?

                1. re: homewithdogs

                  Mentally, to me using beef broth would result in a soup with a greatly changed taste profile. Diluted sour beef stew, perhaps. But by all means try it if you like - after all, you say you've been experimenting for 2 years already...

                  1. re: homewithdogs

                    Mushrooms would contribute a lot of umami. Can you add them, and then remove them before serving?