Although it was July it was a miserable Sunday night in Leicester, and after an unrewarding trawl of town centre pubs I set my sights on a Chinese supper at a small restaurant on London Rd.
The menu had caught my attention earlier featuring a combination of Hakka and Manchurian ‘specials’, an unusual combination. The barren, arid, harsh, cold, under-populated North East, of ‘barbarians’, livestock and wheat, and the lush densely-populated sub-tropical South East of three-cropped rice and vegetables, fruits and fish. The Hakka are those Chinese peoples of the South East Coast who, as sea-going fishermen and explorers, are to be found in long-established colonies across East Asia and beyond. Indeed the illustrious Mrs C., who had aroused my interest in Chinese cooking, is a Hakka. The Manchu lived in various degrees of conflict with their Chinese neighbours before overrunning them in 1644 to set up the Manchu dynasty, which was only displaced by the new Republic in 1912. So I was intrigued.
It was after 10.30pm and I was the only customer but it did not dim the welcome I received. Being a lousy cold damp night I settled for a hot and sour soup and a Hakka Chow Mein (which turned out to be roughly identical to any standard mixed meat Chow Mein or fried noodle). However the host initiated this article by asking if I wanted my soup served first. In Chinese cuisine, putting aside the snack or fast food soup noodle in all its forms (Lu Mein), soup is usually served not as a prelude to, but with or at the end of, the meal.
My first experience of ‘Chinese’ soup was in those famous three course businessman’s lunch for ten shillings (50p) widely available in the ‘70s. The ‘soup’ - served on a flat dish with white sliced bread, seemed to epitomise the Chinese capacity for adaptation, bearing no relationship to a proper Chinese soup nor really to anything home-made or even out of Campbell’s tin. Its origin I haven’t a clue about. It had obviously been thickened with flour, and was either reddish (tomato) or whitish (chicken), and generally showed little evidence of tomato or chicken. We quite liked it.
A hot and sour soup is splendid fare for a miserable night; it also epitomises the different cuisines of North and South China. It is a winter soup and, as such it is made from largely dried or preserved ingredients, or items that will keep in storage. Like a roast-beef dinner or traditional English breakfast, no two are necessarily identical, but bear their maker’s mark.
Unlike the clear consommés of Southern Chinese soups - such as crab or won ton, hot and sour is thickened to give it a silky body. It generally contains a small quantity of finely chopped preserved meat such as ham or dried sausage, dried shrimps, dried mushroom, finely sliced dried fungus (wood ear), carrot and bamboo shoot.
Like all soups it is built on a stock, vegetable or chicken, which in itself determines the depth of taste. In the days of stock pots, stock making was an elaborate and sometimes lengthy combination of art and science which has largely been displaced by the convenient stock cube. Stocks are generally made from chicken carcasses and meat bones to produce a clear broth. These sometimes feature unadorned as palate cleansers or digestifs in a full sit down banquet. Traditionally they were swilled round the bowl (since you only had one bowl to eat with) to ensure the last grain of rice was consumed at the end of the meal.
Hot and sour soup’s key characteristics come from a variety of sources. Kenneth Lo suggests it is a ground-pepper based dish, but invariably in a restaurant or take-away it will have red chilli pepper sliced into it, and sometimes I suspect chilli sauce or oil. In this case unusually it had green chilli pepper; the seeds are usually included ensuring it has a kick. Apart from an infusion of vinegar it will also have shredded pickled mustard greens to add sourness, and to add contrast and protein, dried or fresh bean curd will be added finely diced.
It is easy to see hot and sour soup as a quick economical invigorating pick you up in a Northern wind-swept snow-bound winter, with all the ingredients available on a larder shelf, and a minimum amount of cooking time required. Everything is shredded so finely it takes hardly any cooking. Slaked corn flour is added for thickening and thinned beaten egg swirled in if desired. Its dark colour is the product of a small amount of soy sauce. One recipe suggests adding prepared sea cucumber or alternatively shredded congealed chicken blood (blood pudding); I’ve never gone down that route. Hot and Sour is a strong flavoured soup, reflecting its dried and pickled ingredients, but it should have a balance of flavours to reflect the balance of these ingredients.
While hot and sour soup is an acquired taste, Chinese clear soups such as chicken noodle, won-ton (‘floating clouds’ - a kind of pork-filled transparent ravioli), fish ball or minced pork and tomato have their own distinguishing features. Unfortunately their place is often substituted by the ubiquitous chicken and sweetcorn, and even worse, so called ‘crab’ and sweetcorn. I am appalled at the number of restaurants who advertise this dish when it is blatantly made from ‘crab’ sticks, industrially processed from crab-flavoured white fish.
My hot and sour soup hit the spot (I have so far been trying to avoid the clichés loved by the ‘Dining out’ critic of my local paper, whose food is always ‘tasty’ and whose partner always finds the garlic mushrooms ‘more-ish and who is ‘very impressed’ with the complimentary liqueur). It wasn’t exactly as expected. Hot and Sour? Yes. Made my nose run? Yes. The meat content was chicken. The carrot and bamboo shoot was very finely shredded and very al dente. And no wood ears. However with a bill for two dishes and a pot of Chinese tea coming in at well under £10.00 I was ‘very impressed’.
Hot and Sour Soup (for 4-6 depending on bowl size!)
4 oz shredded ham, hock or dried sausage (chicken or lean pork is an option)
4 oz of dried shrimps (fresh, if not available)
1 small carrot finely shredded
Equivalent amount of shredded bamboo shoot
2 soaked and finely shredded dried mushrooms (shitake)
Equivalent amount of soaked and shredded wood ear fungus
1 tablespoon finely shredded pickled vegetable (available in jars or re-sealable pouches
1 litre of chicken stock (if using stock cubes avoid ones with added ingredients)
1 red chilli pepper, sliced thinly
1 square dry (or fresh) bean curd finely cut
2 well-beaten eggs
1 flat tablespoon cornflour slaked with 4-5 tablespoons water
Salt to taste
Half teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 tablespoon white rice or wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Half teaspoon ground black pepper
Bring stock to boil and add salt and sugar.
Add shredded meats, vegetables and dried bean curd.
Return to boil then simmer for two minutes.
Slowly drizzle in beaten eggs (adding a little water will thin them) while stirring.
Add seasoning mix. (Add bean curd if using fresh) Stir.
Slowly pour in cornflour mix and stir to thicken.
Garnish with finely chopped spring onion if required.