I am not quite sure what’s wrong with me, but every time the weather turns warm I get overwhelming cravings for hot food. A ridiculous need for a big, steaming bowl of rich ramen often pops up, and one too often I’ve given in to the pestering in my head, sweating and gasping for breath as I battle gloriously through a bowl of noodles in thirty degree plus weather; I’m glad my favourite ramen haunt has since installed air-conditioning since last summer. This masochistic thrill similarly transfers to the cold; ice cream and sorbet are best had in winter months – in my opinion – as they do not melt as quickly. Nothing is sadder than a sticky ice cream puddle on a hot summer’s day.
The need for heat hit me a week or two ago before the Sydney rains set in; it was an unseasonably warm late October day, and out of nowhere while I was minding my own business at my office desk, I got bowled over with a massive wave of desire for hot and sour soup.
Funnily enough, this was another dish that my mother made quite frequently while I still lived with my parents, and while I liked the soup well enough, it didn’t rank anywhere close as one of my favourite dishes. She tended to add a bit too much wood-ear fungus (mu-er;’not as horrid as it sounds) for my liking, and there would be the occasional absent-minded evening where she added a bit too much cornflour to the soup and it developed an interestingly lumpy, claggy texture. The best hot and sour soups I’ve had out have been at Sammy’s Kitchen in Canberra, and the more local New Shanghai, but while the flavour and consistency of the soup were on point, they have both been a little lacking in ingredients. I resolved to remedy my craving by making my own.
The soup is actually quite disarmingly easy to make, with the only flavouring sauces required being soy sauce, black vinegar, and sesame oil – staples in Chinese cooking. The chilli oil topping is optional, but szechuan peppercorn oil can be found easily enough at any Asian grocery store. What is the most time-consuming element is waiting for the shiitake mushrooms to soak and the julienne of the bamboo and carrot, but then once that’s done everything is added to the soup and it barely takes any time to cook. Julienning can be a very calming and soothing activity on a quiet afternoon – just make sure you have a sharp knife! I’ve also added the mushroom-soaking water to the soup here for an added kick of flavour.
To serve four, you will need:
- 6-7 medium-sized shiitake mushrooms, dried;
- Half a medium carrot or two small Dutch carrots, about 50g;
- 150g tinned bamboo shoots;
- 50g five-spice firm tofu (bean curd), sliced;
- 100g pork fillet;
- 500ml chicken consomme;
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce;
- 2 teaspoons black vinegar;
- 1 tablespoon cornflour;
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil;
- white pepper and salt;
- One spring onion, sliced finely;
- Szechuan peppercorn oil, to taste (optional).
Add 700ml of boiling water to a heatproof bowl and add the mushrooms to soak. Cover with a plate and allow to soak for half an hour until fully hydrated. Carefully remove, squeeze out the excess water and removing the woody stalk, slice.
Julienne the bamboo and carrot (peeling is optional; I just like to give them a good scrub) into matchsticks.
Into a medium saucepan, add the consomme and mushroom-soaking water and bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Add the pork and mushrooms and stir for two minutes before adding the bamboo, carrot, and tofu. Bring to a simmer again. In a small bowl, mix the cornflour with the soy sauce and black vinegar until smooth and slowly add to the soup while continuing to stir. Add the sesame oil and a good couple of pinches of white pepper. Season with salt to taste.
And the soup is done! I like to do what my mother does and beat an egg before drizzling it over the soup at the very end while it’s barely simmering, forming beautifully silky ribbons.
A few drops (or several!) of peppercorn oil add just the perfect amount of heat and smokiness 😉 Scatter with spring onions and devour immediately. I also like mine with an extra dash of vinegar.