How do I make hot and sour soup?
March 7, 2012 6:00 PM   Subscribe

I want to make hot and sour soup, except there are two difficulties: I'm not sure how to shop for Southeast/East Asian ingredients and I can't eat hot peppers.

So, I've always been fond of hot and sour soups, usually in Chinese restaurants. The other day, we got take-out Thai food (if it matters, it was Thai Tony's in Ft. Hamilton, Brooklyn) and I ordered the tom yum kung. And it was fantastic. Seriously, I haven't had soup that great in a long time. Sour, and lemongrassy, and with a nice kick but, surprisingly, no capsaicin burn. Which is good because I can't do capsaicin without having horrible gut problems.

So, now I want to make some, but all the recipes have ingredients I'm not sure how to purchase and involve hot peppers in some form or another. I can have a bit, but definitely not the amount people advise in something caled "hot and sour soup." I live in a neighborhood with a signifanct Chinese immigrant population, so getting ingredients won't be a problem. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to pick out stuff like kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass and galangal, much less what to substitute for hot chili paste to keep in the kick.

So does anyone have a good, non-spicy recipe (or a good subsitute for the flavor of chili paste) and some advice on how to pick the ingredients you generally don't find in a run-of-themill grocery store? The recipe doesn't have to be for tom yung, specifically, although I did enjoy that one more than the viscous Chinese version I was used to. Extra points for vegetarian recipes. I am genuinely terrible at cooking, but my vegetarian girlfriend isn't and it would be nice if she could partake in what she's going to have a major hand in cooking.
posted by griphus to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
This doesn't directly answer your question, but it may help. Capsaicin is produced in the white membrane lining the pepper. If you use a sharp knife, you can remove much of the heat from a pepper by taking these out. Remove the seeds too, as they are often coated in capsaicin from the membrane. You'll still get all of the flavor - the membrane is basically tasteless.

It's pretty amazing how much of a difference this can make. I grow peppers indoors, with something like 15 varieties at present, and I've seen people who were very much not fans of spice eat foods with habaneros and fataliis without discomfort.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 6:04 PM on March 7, 2012

I love hot and sour soup too and find that most of the 'hot' comes from white pepper (like peppercorns, not hot peppers)... try variations on white pepper and vinegar (I like cider vinegar) and you might be happily surprised.
posted by The otter lady at 6:06 PM on March 7, 2012

Many years ago I read an article about how how and sour soup should be hot from white and black pepper and not from chili peppers or chili oil.

The only odd thing I recall in it is cloud ear fungus, iirc. I'll look later.
posted by plinth at 6:22 PM on March 7, 2012

Most of the recipes I've seen call for white or black pepper and vinegar of some sort. As far as odd ingredients go, the recipe I use calls for cloud ears, black fungus, and dried lily buds in addition to the more usual ingredients. Never seen lemongrass, though.
posted by Gilbert at 6:33 PM on March 7, 2012

I don't have a recipe for tom yung, just the regular Hot and Sour soup. For the "hot" part, we use Chili Garlic paste, but we've also used Sriracha. The recipe uses chicken stock and calls for either diced chicken or pork, but I'm sure vegetable stock can be used, and the meat left out.

We make this recipe about once a month, and absolutely love it. The recipe comes from a crock pot cookbook, but we usually make it right on the stove to save time.

All of these ingredients can be found in our local grocery store, in a mostly white flight suburb east of Atlanta, so I'm sure they'd be easy to find in NYC.

2 cans (14.5 oz each) chicken broth
1 cup chopped cooked chicken or pork
4 oz fresh shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/2 cup thinly sliced bamboo shoots
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar (we usually add more)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1.5 teaspoons chili paste (the Garlic Chili paste)
4 oz firm tofu, drained and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 teaspoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons cornstarch

Chopped cilantro and sliced green onions for garnish

Combine the broth, meat, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, vinegar, soy sauce, and chili garlic paste into a 4.5 or larger stock pot, and bring to a simmer. We usually simmer until the mushrooms are very tender, probably 45 minutes to an hour.

Stir in tofu and sesame oil, then combine the cornstarch and the water and add to the soup. Bring the soup to a boil for 5 minutes or so, to cook out the cornstarch and thicken the soup. Serve.

We usually add some extra vinegar to taste when we eat the soup, because we like the "sour" more than the "hot".
posted by ralan at 6:42 PM on March 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

I wonder if some of that hot-but-not-horrid-burning comes from Sichuan pepper, which is unrelated to the peppers that give you trouble. It looks like the component chemistry is different, too. I don't do hot very well myself, and was able to handle a lot more than I thought when a friend made us a spicy chicken recipe he'd brought back from Beijing.
posted by mimi at 6:43 PM on March 7, 2012

Also, if you use a knife to cut off the white membrane parts of the pepper, wear gloves! That stuff burns when it gets under your nails, and then if you forget that you touched peppers and then rub your eye or pick your nose... It's the worst pain ever!
posted by at 6:50 PM on March 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

One thing you could consider for this soup in particular is following Cook's Illustrated's recommendation and, instead of tracking down a bajillion ingredients you won't recognize, just use red curry paste (which has all those ingredients in it) instead.

The Cook's Illustrated recipe has a bit more to it, but, if you're a real newbie, you could just make a soup, add coconut milk and whatever fixins you'd like (e.g., chicken, vegetables, whatever), and add thai red curry paste to taste.

The recipes are behind a paywall, but you can sign up for a 14 day free subscription if you want. I found a couple of blogs with adapted versions of the recipes as well.

None of these will have too much pepper as there just isn't much in the curry paste. And, to address your "ease of buying" issue, the red curry paste will be very easy to find in an asian grocery store.
posted by Nx at 6:57 PM on March 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hot and Sour soup: whatever recipe you are using, just use less peppers or none. It's a relatively interpretive dish. I wouldn't leave out the black pepper though, but most of the flavour is from the vinegar, and the texture from cornstarch. Play with the rest, you don't have to use every unfamiliar ingredient and soup is very forgiving.

Tom Yum: Go buy a packet. It seems disgenuine, but I cook well and I will happily buy the packet. Tom Yum is known for its flavour not for being a meat soup or using an interesting combination of vegetables - because of that and how scrumptious it is due to its herb/spice combo, you want to be meticulous about that part - which is laborious for shopping and cooking. However, there are many excellent tom yum soup packets in existence and worth looking for in your local SE market. It will save you tons of time and money.
posted by joannqy at 7:37 PM on March 7, 2012

Indirect response:
You could instead try a Sweet and Sour soup which involves red wine vinegar and no hot peppers.
posted by jander03 at 9:08 PM on March 7, 2012

Get thee to Bangkok Center Grocery. It's a Thai grocery store in Chinatown that is well-stocked, well-organized, and (best of all) has the most friendly employees on the planet. Once upon a time my credit card didn't work and they let me take the food and come pay the next day. You'll find lime leaves there (keep 'em in your freezer) along with everything else even slightly esoteric there.

Here's a vegetarian Tom Yum recipe I gave one of my cooking classes. I think it's from Real Vegetarian Thai, which is all right.

Oh man I just discovered that Temple of Thai has a recipe for vegetarian tom yum. Listen to that one, not to me! But for completeness's sake, here's the Real Vegetarian Thai one:
1 quart weak vegetable stock
2-3 stalked lemongrass, bruised (lemongrass video)
6 coins ginger or galangal (coin = slice)
8 Thai chilies, bruised (you can just plain get rid of these)
5 shallots, thinly sliced, or 1/2 onion, thinly sliced
2 tbl roasted chili paste (This will probably have shrimp paste in it! You'll want to ask what you can use instead. Roasted chili paste doesn't burn like Thai chilies, and you can use less if you'd like)
3-4 tbl tamarind water (take some tamarind and soak it in hot water. the water will get murky and tamarind-y and that's what you use)
1 cup mushrooms, quartered
juice of 1-2 limes
1/2 cup cilantro
optional: 1 tsp sugar, soy sauce, small quartered tomato

1. Simmer the stock with the lemongrass for about 10 minutes
2. Add ginger/galangal, lime leaves, bruised chilies and onions. Simmer for a few minutes.
3. Add roasted chili paste, tamarind water, mushrooms. Simmer for a few more minutes.
4. Add tomato wedges. Turn off heat, stir in lime juice and cilantro.
But honestly, go to Bangkok Center Grocery and ask for advice. They're super nice and when I go in there there's always some fancy lady asking Too Many Questions but they're super cool with it, and then they'll talk to you for 10 minutes about the different kinds of coconut milk or chili paste and it's just a great place to get over Exotic Ingredient Fear.
posted by soma lkzx at 9:16 PM on March 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you let serranos ripen in a paper bag until they're bright red (they'll get softer too, that's fine) then cut out the membranes and seeds, you'll get a nice fruity chili flavor with not too much heat.

Thai chiles are just going to be too hot for you, and while ripened jalapenos will also work, I think that the flavor of serranos will work better.
posted by desuetude at 6:50 AM on March 8, 2012

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