Get the Recipe
I'm kicking off the inaugural Chinese Food post with a discussion of hot and sour soup, that workhorse soup at a lot of Chinese joints (second perhaps only to egg drop soup.)
My feeling about hot and sour soup is that—and bear with me here—it should not be hot and it should most definitely not be sour. Most Chinese recipes for the soup concur, though every once in a while I'll duck into a shop in Chinatown serving up a bowl of the soup that lives up to its name. I want to flag down the manager and ask, Didn't you get the memo about hot and sour soup?, but of course I don't.
Hot and sour soup uses ground white peppercorns rather than chili peppers as its "hot" element. Not a particularly fiery spice. For the sour side, it uses just a dash of vinegar made from sweet rice—a type of vinegar that finishes on a sweet, not overtly sour note. (Compare this with tom yum, which uses chili pepper, lemongrass, and lime for a thin broth that is spicy and tangy.)
So if the soup is not hot, and the soup is not sour, then what is it? Hot and sour soup is whatever good stock you have on hand, thickened with cornstarch, containing various bits of meat and vegetables, and finished with vinegar and white pepper. Hot and sour soup is not a thin soup. The liquid is so thick, in fact, that it almost slides across your tongue when you're sipping. That's probably one of my favorite things about the soup, the way the starch slurry adds substance without taste. It's a quality found in a lot of Chinese, particularly Cantonese soups, and it feels very soothing going down the gullet.