Let's see if we can't clear a few things up.
Thai and Chinese hot and sour soup are very different animals.
Chinese hot and sour soup is called Shoon Lat Tong
. Might as well know.
Besides the usual cloud ear fungus, tofu, etc., an essential ingredient in shoon lat tong is lily bud
. You simply can't make a good-restaurant quality shoon lat tong
without it. Fresh is very cool, but dried is how it's most often found and used in Chinese markets. You won't find lily bud at 7-11, or at an American super -- even one with a large Asian section. You need an Asian super or, sometimes, an Asian herb store. Or (taa daa) online. It's dried, it's light, it ships cheap.
How essential is it? Well, essential is an absolute and not a comparative term and I knew that when I used it, so you've got my opinion. But I exaggerated. It's almost essential. Let's say it's the difference between American and Chinese. If you go to a good Chinese restaurant -- even P. F. Chang's -- the soup has lily buds in it. Not in there? You may not be able to identify what's wrong, but you know it's something important.
Also almost essential: Cloud ear aka wood ear aka something-else ear fungus aka mushroom. Also, as a last resort, available online.
You control the ultimate thickness of the soup with a corn starch slurry. Don't let a recipe push you around. You know how thick you like it. The recipe doesn't. Make more slurry (starch mixed with soup or water) than whatever recipe you use calls for, and start by using less. The thickening action is almost instant, so it's easy to adjust up.
The right vinegar is Chinese black vinegar. A decent substitute is mixing rice vinegar and red-wine vinegar 50/50. All of these are milder than American distilled vinegar, or cider vinegar, both of which make adequate substitutes -- but you'll have to adjust. Avoid sherry, balsamic and malt vinegars. These bring their own agenda. You control the ultimate "sourness" with vinegar (duh). Again, control your recipe -- rather than the other way around. Don't be afraid to start with a little less and add more. Perhaps substantially more, if that's how you like it. You can do this immediately before service. If there's an extreme vinegar lover at the table, keep the soup mild and pass a cruet.
Stay conservative with the pepper(s). Some recipes call for various specific Chinese chilis. Most recipes rely solely on fine ground white pepper. Always add heat to the pot to a level comfortable for the most sensitive diner. Add more at the table if you like. I find that whatever's in the soup, white pepper does an excellent job at the table; and so does lan yu
(Chinese sesame/chili oil -- very hot). Watch it with the lan yu
, it's hotter than you think.
Hot and sour soup is really pretty basic -- two intense flavors -- hot and sour -- in the broth and a lot of stuff floating around. This means there's a lot of room for improvisation in the soup in terms of how much of each ingredient you use -- although the ingredient list itself isn't quite as flexible.
The key technique to making almost any Chinese dish is pre-preparation. The most important equipment is a set of small bowls. Cut and prep every ingredient which can be cut, mixed or prepped and reserve it in its own bowl. Set up all the bowls as close to your stove as possible before starting. Chinese recipes reflect the habit of highly organized pre-preparation as much as Chinese knife techniques reflect the use of chopsticks. In other words, it's a given.
There are many good recipes and many bad. As a rule of thumb: If it doesn't call for lily buds, the writer is dumbing it down beyond recognition and the recipe should be probably avoided.
I'll post a link to a shoon lat tong
recipe I think is a good, but by no means the only good one: RecipeSource: Hot And Sour Soup- Szechuan
Here's a different take. Even though it's vegetarian, I chose it after writing this post
because it so closely reflects my own thinking. The writer does not use meat, chicken broth or corn-starch for thickening. To make a corn starch slurry, mix 2 tbs corn starch with 4 tbs water. When the soup is otherwise finished, bring it to a fast simmer, and add 1 tbs of slurry. Give it a minute to thicken, then add more slurry as necessary to achieve your desired thickness. Here's the link: use real butter » Blog Archive » hot and sour soup
Lastly, here's my recipe:
SHOON LAT TONG (Hot and Sour Soup)
(2 meal size servings, or 8 before dinner servings)
1/4 lb (boneless) pork, cut into Chinese batonet (1/4" x 1/4" x 1-1/4" strips)
2 tsp dark soy sauce (Pearl River Bridge Superior)
1 tsp corn starch
1/2 tsp of crushed, minced ginger, or pinch of ground ginger.
Dozen (about) dried lily buds, reconstituted and shredded
Dozen (about) cloud ear, wood ear, tree ear, or other (if there is one) fungus, reconstituted and cut into Chinese julienne (1/8" x 1/8" x 1-1/4)
Half dozen (about) dried shitake mushrooms, reconstituted and cut into Chinese julienne
1/2 cup bamboo shoots, cut Chinese julienne (or use an 8-oz can)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tsp light soy sauce (Pearl River Bridge Superior, Silver or Golden)
1/4 cup black vinegar (or 2 tbs red-wine vinegar + 2 tbs rice vinegar)
1 tsp table salt
3 tbs (about) corn, canola or peanut oil
3-1/2 cups chicken stock or broth (or 2 cans broth) + 1 cup water
1/4 lb firm tofu, rinsed and drained, then cut into Chinese batonet
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1tsp finely ground white pepper, at least (adjust at end)
Salt to taste
Additional white pepper to taste
Additional vinegar (black or mixed) to taste
Cut the pork into Chinese batonet (see note). Put it in a small bowl with the dark soy sauce and tsp of corn starch. Mix until meat is coated. Cut a couple of small, thin slices of fresh ginger, crush with the flat of a knife and mince very finely (will be about 1/2 tsp); or brunois and crush. If no fresh ginger, may use a pinch of ground. Add to the pork and mix again. Cover with cling wrap and reserve.
Reconstitute the lily buds in 1 cup hot water until soft, about 15 minutes. Remove and drain. Using fingers to determine where tough ends, and soft begins, trim off the tough tips. Cut to about 1-1/4" long and cut or shred each stem into 2 or 3 parts. Reserve in a bowl covered with cling wrap.
Meanwhile reconstitute the cloud ears and dried mushrooms in 2 cups hot water. This takes between 20 and 45 minutes. Remove them from the soaking liquid and squeeze them out to get rid of excess water. Trim the stems from the shitake. Cut the shitake and ears into "Chinese julienne" (see note). Reserve with the prepared lily buds. Reserve 1/4 cup of the soaking liquid and discard the rest.
Mix the reserved ear/mushroom water with the corn starch to make a slurry. Reserve the slurry in a small bowl covered with cling wrap.
If using canned bamboo shoots, prep them by putting them in a sauce pan, covering with water, boiling, draining and rinsing in cold water. If using "fresh" (from the tank at a Chinese market), soak in cold water for 10 minutes and rinse. Cut into Chinese julienne and reserve with the buds and fungus.
Meanwhile cut the tofu into batonet, and reserve in a bowl covered with cling wrap.
Mix vinegar(s), light soy sauce, sugar, and salt in another small bowl.
Beat eggs - splitting the difference between "slightly" and "thoroughly," add a few drops of sesame oil to them. Reserve.
Heat wok to temp, add enough oil to wok, let it come to temp (just below smoking), add pork. Allow pork to sear before tossing. Toss until all sides have changed color, about two minutes in total. Add the buds, ears, mushrooms and shoots. Stir-fry until heated through. Less than 2 minutes.
Add the broth and water. Bring to a boil. Add the tofu. Add the vinegar. Allow to return to a slow boil.
Stir the slurry to make sure it well mixed. With the soup at a slow boil, add half the slurry (about 2 tbs), and stir for thirty seconds. If the soup does not thicken to your taste, add an additional tablespoon of slurry. Stir for thirty seconds; and, if necessary, add the rest. Reduce heat to a simmer, and allow to simmer for 2 minutes.
Stir the eggs to make sure they're homogenized. Add the eggs to the soup in a thin stream while stirring the soup in one direction. Remove from heat. Stir in the white pepper. Taste and adjust for salt, pepper, vinegar. Add the sesame oil, taste and adjust again. If you like fresh garniture (and who doesn't?), sprinkle with chopped cilantro and scallion tops before serving.
Note 1: I use the terms "Chinese julienne" and "Chinese batonet," in quotes. You know they're modified standard terms. What do I mean? As starndard terms batonet means a strip cut 1/4" x 1/4" x 2-1/2" and julienne means a strip cut 1/8" x 1/8" x 2-1/2". But even though strip widths are very useful, 2-1/2" long is too long for Chinese food becaue it's too big to get into your mouth gracefully when eating with sticks -- and in this case, too long to fit nicely into a soup spoon. So, I cut the lengths down. As it happens, the distance between each of the three rivets on an ordinary European-style chef's knife is about 1-1/4" long -- so that's what I use as a guide.
Note 2: More on julienne and batonet -- Very few home cooks can cut julienne with their ordinary, go-to knife (whatever that is). Batonet is about as fine as most can get. That includes Chinese home cooks too. So, it must be better than okay.