At Super Wok in Cary (www.superwok.wikidot.com), the meticulous Sichuan fare is sometimes fiery, but never merely fiery. Remarkably complex lacings of flavor underpin even the occasional five-alarm combustion, demonstrating the subtle essence of a regional cuisine that tends to be nervously watered down for the burger-bred palate.
Chef Zengming Chen's hot and sour soup—a vibrant and authentic version of a buffet basic—makes the point. An electric current of mild chili heat lends a galvanic tingle, while bold strains of soy and vinegar jostle for supremacy. This soup—and Chef Chen's cuisine generally—evokes a word not often associated with Chinese cuisine in America: dimensionality. There seem to be backgrounds and foregrounds, foundations and superstructures, a methodical architectonics of flavor and texture.
"You must control fragrance, taste and spiciness if you want this soup to be right," Chen says. "You must observe the color; the color represents the proper control and blending of the ingredients. A lighter color means that the flavors are off. Some hot and sour soups are pale and unappetizing. The soup must be shiny and a rich dark amber."
Hailing from the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou, where his family owned a fish ball shop, Chen immigrated to the U.S. in 1994. He opened Super Wok in 2008 after briefly helming his own restaurant in Philadelphia and serving a long apprenticeship in New Jersey. In the Garden State, of all places, he schooled himself in Sichuan cuisine and learned the secrets of hot and sour soup at the feet of a master chef visiting from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan.
For all its impressive pedigree, however, the soup could not be less pretentious or easier to prepare.
"This is a regular daily soup," Chen says. "People eat this kind of soup every day, as a snack or as part of a meal. In Fuzhou, where I am from, people eat soup with the meal, but in Sichuan they eat soup before the meal, as people do in America."
Filling, healthy, economical and undiminished by a few days in the fridge, Chen's hot and sour soup is an ideal staple. Its intricacy will impress dinner guests, while its heartiness and earthiness will lure you downstairs for a piquant midnight snack.
Serves 8 to 10
200 grams (about a half block) soft tofu
100 grams (about 1 cup) canned bamboo shoots, precut into matchsticks, drained
20 dried wood ears (i.e., ear-shaped fungi)
15 dried arbol chilies
3 tbs. canola or vegetable oil
7 cups unsalted chicken stock, preferably homemade
1/2 cup white rice vinegar
1/3 cup soy sauce, preferably Kikkoman brand
1 tbs. dark soy sauce
2 tbs. Shaoxing cooking wine
1 tbs. sesame oil
2 tsp. MSG, preferably a quality Japanese brand like Ajinomoto
2 tsp. chicken bouillon powder
1 tsp. Chinese white pepper powder
5 tbs. tapioca starch
5 tbs. room-temperature water
2 large eggs, well beaten
Kosher salt (to taste)
Hydrate the wood ears in a bowl of water for one hour, drain and roughly chop. Cut the tofu into inch-long rectangular blocks. Parboil the wood ears, tofu and bamboo shoots for about a minute (according to Chen, this removes the unwanted flavors of preservatives). Set aside.
Place the chilies in a bowl of boiling water. Soak for three hours, letting the water gradually cool. Drain and finely chop. Heat a pot of oil to 350 degrees and add 3 tablespoons to the chopped chilies. Set aside.
Bring the stock to a boil. Add the vinegar, soy sauces, wine, sesame oil, MSG, chicken bouillon powder, white pepper powder, wood ears, tofu and bamboo shoots. Add 1–2 tbs. of the chili and oil mixture (see note). Return to a boil.
Fully dissolve the tapioca starch in the water and stir into the soup. The soup will quickly thicken and assume an attractive sheen.
Drizzle the egg into the soup in a thin, steady streamlet, forming concentric circles. Allow the egg to set for about 15 seconds and give a gentle clockwise swirl with a spoon or spatula to produce attractive ribbons.
Taste and add salt as necessary (in all likelihood, no salt will be necessary).
Block tofu comes in three varieties: silky, soft and firm. Be sure to buy soft.
Dried arbol chilies, the default chili of Chinese cuisine, are available in Chinese and Mexican grocery stores. They are 2 to 3 inches long and a dark, brooding red. Control the spiciness of the soup by adding more or less of the chili and oil mix. Begin with a teaspoon or two and work your way up as courage permits. One tablespoon produces a sharp but not unpleasant prickle of heat, while two tablespoons produces a scene from the film Backdraft. Note that the soup will become slightly spicier as it sits overnight.
Many people would no more add MSG to their soup than toxic waste. Some people may have allergic reactions to MSG (the science remains fuzzy), but otherwise MSG seems to be a benign flavor enhancer and a far more pervasive one than most people realize ("natural flavoring" is apparently an MSG code word). A reassuring article in Britain's Observer notes that "every concerned public body that ever investigated [MSG] has given it a clean bill of health, including the EU, the United Nations food agencies ... and the British, Japanese and Australian governments. In fact, every government across the world that has a food licensing and testing system gives MSG—'at normal levels in the diet'—the thumbs-up." If MSG seems to discombobulate you or merely makes you nervous, by all means omit it. Your soup will be somewhat less vivacious, but not fatally hobbled.
Chen uses a high-quality—and regrettably unavailable—corn starch to thicken his soup and many of his sauces. Tapioca starch is preferable to supermarket-caliber corn starch for most Chinese cooking purposes, being less gluey and lending a particularly attractive sheen.
A handy egg-drizzling technique: Let the egg run down the tines of a fork. The superiority of homemade chicken stock cannot be overstated. Canned chicken stock is more likely to taste like "can" than "chicken" and to be far too salty for this already hypersaline recipe. For a simple but adequate stock, simmer four chicken thighs (bone-in, skin on) in 10 cups of water for an hour.