Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

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.”

Hot and Sour Soup

Hot and Sour Soup

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—an apt, but 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.

Mushrooms and Lily buds for Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

Mushrooms and Lily buds for Chinese Hot and Sour Soup

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 a 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.

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)
  • Tofu

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.

More Classic Chinese Recipes!

Updated January 31, 2021 : We spiffed up this post to make it sparkle. No changes to the original recipe.