Polar Vortex Hot and Sour Soup

We rarely ate in restaurants when I was a kid; rarely as in four or five times a year on special occasions. When the special occasion happened to be my birthday, my pick was most often a Chinese restaurant where the atmosphere was so distinctly different that I felt as though I had traveled to a distant land. There were items on the menu that I could not pronounce and aromas coming from the kitchen that I had no mental reference to describe. We usually ordered a “Family Dinner” with soup and dishes for the table to share. Sizzling rice soup was the unanimous soup of choice, but I was always enticed by the dark, viscous hot and sour soup visible on others' tables. How could it be hot and sour? How hot? How sour?

Once I finally had my chance to assuage my curiosity, I began a love affair with this alluring concoction. The many layers of flavor and the variety of textures were intoxicating (even with no alcohol.) When I was sick or sad, I found myself craving the curative elixir, yet I was far too intimidated to attempt this complex soup at home.

When the polar vortex went wonky and the outdoor temperatures dipped into the single digits in Atlanta (a rare occurrence to be sure), a decidedly hot (in both heat and in spice) bowl of soup became the order du jour. After a bit of internet surfing, I discovered that I indeed had all the ingredients on hand and endeavored to create a passable version with dubious confidence. Much to my surprise, not only was the much-anticipated lunch passable, it was downright delicious – REALLY delicious!

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed and minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 4 scallions, white and green parts, minced
  • 1/3 cup carrots, thinly julienned
  • 4 cups store-bought or homemade chicken stock
  • 1 cup cooked chicken, cut into ½ cubes
  • 1 pound firm tofu, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ½ cup button mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup rice wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce, or to taste
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil, plus more for garnish
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce, or to taste
  • 2 large eggs
  • Black pepper for garnish

In the saucepan, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat until hot. Add the garlic, ginger, scallion, and carrots, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 1 minute. Do not scorch the garlic or it will turn bitter. Wipe mushrooms clean with a moist paper towel and slice thinly. You can substitute dried, rehydrated wood ear mushrooms if you wish.

Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Add tofu to the broth. I used firm tofu, but not extra firm. Add the chicken, mushrooms, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, sesame oil, and hot sauce (or you can use Sriracha if you choose)  and bring the soup back to a simmer over medium-high heat. Taste the soup. If you want it hotter, add more hot sauce; if you like your soup to be sourer, add a little extra vinegar (which I did.) I ended up adding what I would approximate to be 2/3 cup of vinegar in total and 1 ½ teaspoons of black pepper in total.

In a small bowl, whisk the eggs until blended. With the soup at a steady simmer, slowly whisk in the eggs so they form strands. Bring the soup back to a simmer. Divide the soup among 4 to 6 bowls and garnish each with a little sesame oil, scallion, and white or black pepper. Serve immediately.
Really delicious!

Any Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 3 days. The soup may take on a slightly different appearance, but it will taste just the same.