Honolulu. 1980. As the plane landed, I felt the first symptoms of a cold. Nooooo, not right now, not at the start of a tropical vacation! I had plans to meet up with a local friend for dinner, when all I really wanted to do was curl up in my hotel room and die. He took me to a Chinese restaurant and ordered us a huge bowl of hot and sour soup. I had not, yet, built up the tolerance to spicy peppers that I have, today, and I was convinced he was trying to kill me. Twenty-four hours later, I realized he’d saved my vacation; my cold was cured.
That’s not normal. The normal progression of a cold is a steady, predictable building from scratchy throat and stuffy nose to full blown misery lasting 3-7 days, and in my case, usually climaxing with the double-whammy of bronchitis and a ten-day course of antibiotics. That’s normal. This was about six hours of misery knocked flat on it’s backside by a bowl of hot and sour soup. I felt terrific, the next day.
In hindsight, the soup itself had been quite tasty. Sure, my tastebuds were traumatized and blistered, but the flavor was more complex than my initial “burns the lips off a chicken” reaction. I set out on a quest to find the perfect hot and sour soup on the mainland. I came close, at a little restaurant in Canton, OH. But by then, I was living in Oklahoma. I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, and I think the place closed, years ago. Nothing, since then, has even come close.
My main complaint is that all restaurant hot and sour soup seems to have been “dumbed down for the tourists.” I get it; I go to Thai restaurants and order “4.5” on a spicy scale of 1-5. That’s my coded message to the cook: “I’m serious about loving hot and spicy things, but I’m not native Thai, please don’t kill me.” People talk a good fight, but when push comes to shove, a few drops of Tabasco Sauce pack too much heat for most people. I’ve tried ghost pepper, and I draw the line far, far down the Scoville Scale. Past a certain point, it’s just a contest to see who’s the dumbest masochist on the planet. Raw Serrano heat is my happy place – somewhere high above jalapeño, but well below Carolina Reaper. Restaurant hot and sour is more mild than a third of a jalapeño, with the ribs and seeds removed. But that’s not the biggest problem with it; the biggest problem is the cornstarch. Restaurant hot and sour soup is thick.
I wondered if my memory were failing me, and if the soup I fell in love with, in Honolulu, wasn’t authentic hot and sour soup at all.
So it’s been nearly 40 years, and I was about ready to give up the quest. In one last act of desperation, I started searching for things like “hot and sour soup that’s not full of cornstarch” and “hot and sour soup that’s actually HOT” and “ffs can’t anyone make a decent hot and sour” and “is hot and sour actually SUPPOSED to be like this?” at which point I found, “The Food Lab: This is How Hot and Sour Soup Should Taste,” by J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT. When I read the following passages, I knew I had to give this a try before giving up for good:
Here’s the fact: Most restaurant hot and sour soup stinks. …
In certain Chinese traditions, hot and sour soup is thickened with blood from either a chicken or a pig. Not only is blood not easy to come by in the US, it’s also not high on most folks’ lists of “things I love to eat,” including mine. Instead, hot and sour soup in the U.S. is more often than not thickened with cornstarch.
Some writers and eaters—probably those that have been scarred by years of eating the steam-table glop—insist on using no thickener at all. I personally like to use just a hair—enough to add some body to the soup and help the solid elements stay suspended, but not so much that it becomes mouth-coatingly slick.
J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT gets me.
First, I went to Hong Kong Market. It’s my new favorite grocery store, but it’s not walking distance like my local Kroger’s and I’d never been there before. Armed with a shopping list the length of my arm, full of things I couldn’t properly pronounce and had never heard of, I started wandering the aisles, just to get my bearings. I quickly found the chicken feet.
You can’t be squeamish if you’re going to cook chicken feet. They look a little too much like a cross between lizard and four-fingered, elegant, old-lady human hands. The recipe also calls for “chicken carcass.” Isn’t that just…whole chicken? Apparently not. One thing you can easily find at the Asian market that you won’t likely find in a U.S. grocery chain is random chicken parts, hacked to bits for stock. I was relieved, because I wasn’t looking forward to this part of the instructions:
Hack your chicken carcasses to bits before making stock. Not only will it make you feel like a medieval viking-style badass, but it’ll also make your broth come together much faster. The more finely you chop the bones, the more surface area they have, and the more channels for proteins, minerals, and other goodies to get extracted into the broth.
Not that I don’t relish the idea of being a medieval viking-style badass, whatever that is, but I have been voted “Most Likely to Hack Her Own Hand Off with a Meat Cleaver.” I have sliced and stabbed myself and even needed stitches, that’s how poor my knife skills are. I’m sure my fingers in there would add a certain “richness” to the broth.
I also found a lovely pork tenderloin, lean and on sale. Jinhua ham? Nope. That was the one substitution I ended up resorting to, using the prosciutto, as recommended in the recipe.
In other news, I know, now, where to find duck tongues, pork arseholes, chicken “testides,” and tripe. I really need a recipe for duck tongues; those look interesting. I think chickens’ “testides” are bigger than their brains.
During my search for the ham, I ran into two very cheerful, helpful, and determined staff members who were easily enlisted in my quest. Laura was particularly kind and at least as doggedly determined to succeed in my grocery scavenger hunt as I was. Together, and with help from another customer, we located day lilies next to the black fungus. So many types of black fungus. We found extra firm tofu, hidden amongst the silken, soft, medium, and firm varieties. With fifty different types of sesame oil, we didn’t find toasted sesame oil. When I got home, armed with sesame seeds for toasting, I found out that the sesame oil I already had at home was toasted!
After the gingerbread fiasco, I was ready for a win. I decided to make the broth today, and finish the soup on Saturday. I blanched the chicken carcass and feet, then put them into my slow-cooker, along with the prosciutto, ginger, onion, scallions, and smashed garlic. I threw about two handfuls of dried red chili peppers in there for good measure.
After simmering all those ingredients for hours, the whole house smells heavenly! I’ve strained and put aside the broth, in the refrigerator, for Saturday’s lunch, and will write later this weekend to let you know if the quest has truly been completed, or if I’ve just found a tasty, but very different, soup to enjoy. Either way, I have no doubt it will be delicious.
Oh, my sweet Lord, that’s good. I couldn’t wait till Saturday – I swiped two cups’ worth of broth to experiment on before subjecting my husband to the finished hot and sour soup this Saturday. My first attempt is not flaming-surface-of-the-sun hot, like I remember that first bowl being, something that’s bound to bring a sigh of relief to my husband’s lips. It may not cure the common cold, but it would sure bring some comfort to the sick. it’s as close to “the perfect hot and sour soup” as I’ve been able to find in 40 years. I intend to practice this until I can whip up a batch of it in my sleep, it’s that good. What more can I say? My long quest has finally come to an end, I’ve found a new grocery store to love, and all that’s left is to perfect my execution of the recipe.