ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN LIP SERVICE WEB MAGAZINE’S ‘MEATLESS MONDAYS’ COLUMN
After a few weeks of carb and dairy heavy meals, not to mention a bit of vacation excess, it felt like a good time to lighten up. Fortunately, we’ll be playing with a fusion of Szechuan and Thai with a touch of Vietnamese, so we’ll get plenty of bold flavors and satisfying richness without the extra calories. It’s kind of like having a culinary Asian All-Star team on your plate.
If you’ve cooked in these cuisines, you’ll already know how long and intimidating many recipes can look, though they’re actually quite simple. There are a goodly amount of raw ingredients to prep, more than we’re used to seeing in general. It’s really no big deal … a little prep earlier in the day and a little doing instead of pot-watching later … not so bad, right?
You’ll also see, in the lists, a few exotic ingredients you’re unlikely to find at the the regular old supermarket (unless you live in an overwhelmingly Asian neighborhood). Even if you can find them at the mega-mart, I heartily recommend searching out a specialty ethnic market in your area or, in the case of some non-perishables, buying online for better quality and selection at a better price. You’ll be surprised what a windfall for your food budget a little side-trip to a locally-owned ethnic market can be. As a bonus, you get to stock up on great pantry items to cook your favorite cuisines throughout the month, plus give back to your local economy.
I have what can only be called a deep and abiding love for Hot and Sour Soup. So, the idea of making a favorite so far off from what I’m used to felt a bit strange. H&S, as you probably know, is generally made with pork, often with chicken broth. That’s not so appropriate for our Meatless Monday dinner, so tinkering must be done to keep the soul of this satisfying soup and not feel like we’re lacking those missing components. In the end, it seemed better to go further afield and tweak away over trying to remain too faithful. What resulted was a soup with the wonderful contrasts of the original plus a few more nuanced levels of flavor, lent by the Thai influence, between the sharp edges. It was definitely a food experiment I’ll be happy to make again soon (and even happier to have leftovers to eat NOW).
To bring a deep meaty taste to the base broth, I decided on shiitake mushrooms, using both mushrooms in the stock as well as soaking water for additional mushrooms set aside for the finished soup. Rather than keep to Szechuan—or even Chinese—ingredients I looked to Thai cuisine, renowned for savory full-bodied flavors without the use of meat. Instead of just ginger, garlic, and scallions as aromatics in the broth, I added galangal, lemon grass, cilantro, and shallot for more layered flavor balance. In the soup, fried chili garlic paste, lime, and tamarind provide savory heat, tart acidity, and umami counterpoints to the sharp acidic sweetness of the vinegars, soft twang of the rice wine, and clean heat of the white pepper. I kept the egg drop, since it’s so crucial to the mouth-happy feel of the soup and it’s great added protein, to boot.
To get some veg in, plus turn the tables on the cuisine fusion, I picked spring rolls as a fresh crunchy foil to the thick savory soup. In thinking about what tweaks might be tasty to the familiar Thai classic, I brought in a hint of Szechuan, as well as a touch of Vietnamese for good measure. Keeping the fresh, light feel of the original, I used a base of shredded veg, but replaced plain with a lightly marinaded/pickled version similar to those of a Vietnamese banh mi. I kept the fresh Thai basil in there because, well, it’s damned tasty, but added just a hint of mint, too. Then, I match-sticked some firm tofu and soaked it through the afternoon in a Szechuan-influenced marinade to use in both the spring rolls and soup.