Hot and sour soup is a lot like chili; every family has their own recipe, and each family thinks that theirs is the best.
When I was in the local Chinese market perusing the mushrooms I asked one of the other shoppers, a tiny and ancient woman half my height whose etched wrinkles framed a friendly smile, where the wood ear mushrooms were.
"What are you using them for?"
"Hot and sour soup," I replied.
"What? You don't want those. Here," she grabbed a bag of dried shiitake, "use these."
"No! You don't want those for hot and sour soup!" cried another, more stout lady behind me. She said something in Cantonese to the first lady before grabbing a fresh bunch of enoki mushrooms and throwing them in my basket. "This is better."
Soon, nine women were having an all out argument in the middle of the aisle. I was stuck in the middle, caught between volleys of angry insults and defenses of cherished family recipes for hot and sour soup, both in Cantonese and English.
People insulted each other's families, critiqued the various provinces of China (all were in agreement that the people in the North, apparently, can't cook good soup), and altered the contents of my shopping basket at whim.
Eventually, a decision was reached that you absolutely have to use black fungus—a possibly unappetizing name for a delightful ingredient—and lily buds. The other mushroom is up to you. Whatever one you decide on be sure to be ready to defend your choice.
What Is Hot and Sour Soup?
Hot and Sour Soup is a favorite Chinese menu item, and it has a long history in traditional Chinese cuisine. As you can tell by the story above, there are many "right" ways to make it!
The predominant flavors in the soup are spicy and sour with earthy flavors from the mushrooms. The textures are also a contrast between silkiness from the tofu and egg and the crunchy, chewiness of the mushrooms.
Watch How to Make This Hot and Sour Soup Recipe
Hot and Sour Soup
What Are the Ingredients for Hot and Sour Soup?
The hardest part about making hot and sour soup is really just collecting all the ingredients. Once you have those, you can have a bowl of restaurant-worthy soup on the table in under an hour!
Here are some of the specialty ingredients you'll need:
- Dried Chinese black fungus
- Dried wood ear, black, cloud, straw or shiitake mushrooms (or one bunch fresh enoki mushrooms)
- Lily buds
- Can of bamboo shoots
- Rice vinegar
- White pepper (do not substitute black pepper)
You can sometimes find these ingredients at a well-stocked gourmet grocery store, but your best bet is to head to your closest Asian supermarket.
BONUS: The mushrooms and lily buds will keep for quite some time in the pantry. You can have hot and sour soup whenever the craving hits!
Vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup
My version of hot and sour soup is made with chicken broth, but you can easily substitute vegetable broth for a vegetarian version.
Storing and Freezing
This soup is really best eaten as soon as its made and does not freeze well. If you have leftovers, reheat them gently on the stovetop over low heat.
How to Customize Hot and Sour Soup
Hot and sour soup is easily customizable. Try some of these additions or substitutions.
- Add shredded chicken, pork or beef.
- Go crazy and use more than two types of mushrooms.
- Substitute sambal oelek (an Indonesian chili paste) for the chili oil.
- Substitute water chestnuts for the bamboo shoots.
- Substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth to make this a vegetarian soup.
- Add small broccoli florets, frozen corn kernels, or thinly sliced carrots.
- If you're concerned about sodium, use low-sodium soy sauce instead of regular soy sauce.
Tips for the Best Hot and Sour Soup
This recipe makes a very good soup, but for stellar hot and sour soup, follow these tips.
- Visit a Chinese market for ingredients - like lily buds, bamboo shoots, and specialty mushrooms - you may not find at a regular grocery store.
- Make sure the tofu is fresh. It should be white, with little aroma. If it's discolored or has a sour smell, don't buy it.
- Use good-quality broth.
- White pepper gives hot and sour soup its distinctive flavor. Try to make it freshly ground, and, if possible, don't substitute black pepper.
What to Serve with Hot and Sour Soup
Round out your meal with these other riffs on Chinese-American restaurant favorites.
More Classic Chinese Recipes
Chinese Hot and Sour Soup
- 6 dried Chinese black fungus
- 6 dried wood ear, black, cloud, straw, or shiitake mushrooms, or one bunch of fresh enoki mushrooms
- 5 dried lily buds
- 1 (8 ounce) can bamboo shoots
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar or rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 block firm tofu, diced into small cubes
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 3 scallions, diced
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely ground white pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon chili oil (optional)
- Cilantro (optional)
Prepare the dried mushrooms:
Pour boiling water over the mushrooms to cover and allow them to soak for 20 minutes, turning the mushrooms over occasionally. It may not seem like a lot but they will grow quite a bit.
After soaking remove any woody ends with a knife. Cut mushrooms into strips. Reserve 1/4 cup of the liquid and mix with the cornstarch. (If using fresh enoki mushrooms set aside as they do not need to soak.)
Prepare the lily buds:
Pour boiling water over the lily buds to cover and allow to sit for 15 minutes. Cut the buds crosswise, then tear them up into a few bunches.
Prepare the remaining ingredients:
Mix the vinegars and soy sauce together and set aside. Open the can of bamboo shoots, drain well, and cut the shoots lengthwise into strips.
Build the soup:
Place the chicken broth into a pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the tofu, mushrooms, lily buds, bamboo shoots, vinegar mixture, and cornstarch mixture. Mix and bring back to a boil. Once it comes to a boil remove from heat.
Pour the egg into the broth:
Pour the egg in a slow steam while stirring the soup allowing it to instantly cook and feather into the soup.
Add the scallions, white pepper, sesame oil, and chili oil (if using):
Taste and adjust white pepper, vinegar, and salt to taste. Add cilantro (if using) to garnish and for added flavor. Serve immediately.