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Hot Pepper Soup

胡辣汤 (Hu La Tang) is the most popular breakfast in He Nan province. Tang means soup, Hu is the first character of peppercorns in Chinese, and La means hot or spicy. This dish is famous for its outstanding peppery flavor and a lasting, complex spice fragrance. The soup is warm, creamy, and thick – perfect for winter.

1. Separate the Wheat Starch and Gluten – Xi Mian Jing (洗面筋)

I will show you the traditional method of how we separate the gluten and wheat starch. It is a time-consuming process called Xi Mian Jing (洗面筋), which means washing the gluten. Not that many people will do it this way anymore, but it is always good to know how things are traditionally done. Also, I will talk about the shortcut later if you don’t have time to do this, so do not worry.

I am using bread flour today because it contains a higher percentage of gluten. All-purpose flour will also work, but you might get a bit less gluten out of it, which is totally fine.

In a mixing bowl, combine 300 grams of bread flour and 175 grams of water. Give that a pre-mix to roughly corporate everything. You can knead the dough by hand which is not that difficult, but since I have a KitchenAid, why not use it. Let it run at low speed for 8-10 minutes.

When it is done kneading, it should be smooth and nonstick. Roughly shape it into a round ball. Cover it. Let it rest for 30 minutes. This will give the dough enough time to allow all the proteins to bond with each other.

30 minutes later, take the dough out and wash it into a bowl that is filled with water. As the water gets cloudy, you will see some strings appearing on the surface of the dough; it looks kind of like a network. That is gluten. All the wheat starch was in between these strings, so you just do your best to wash the starch off. Keep rubbing and rinsing it gently as you are hand washing a delicate cloth.

In about 10 minutes, you will have a piece of gluten and a big batch of starch water. Pour the starch water into a big bowl to collect it. Use a sieve to catch any small gluten bits. Continue to wash the gluten with a little more water several times until the water becomes clear.

Soak the gluten so it doesn’t dry out. Let the starch water sit for at least 6 hours to allow the starch to sink to the bottom completely. Pour out the topwater carefully.

We will use this starch water to thicken the soup later and we will cook the gluten in the soup as a topping. I understand it is time-consuming so if you want a shortcut, you can buy the wheat starch and wheat gluten from the store; I will link the products in the description. If you want a gluten free option, you can use cornstarch to replace the wheat starch and use tofu sheets to replace the wheat gluten or simply skip the wheat gluten altogether. Ok, let’s set them aside and we will move on to the beef stock.

2. Make the Beef Stock

You will need 3-4 pound of beef. You want to get the cut that has 50% meat and 50% bone, such as beef ribs, beef neck, shank. The bone is gonna help to enrich the broth and we need the meat to make the soup.

I prefer my broth to come out clean and clear so I will blanch the beef first.  Fill a pot with water and add your beef. Bring it to a boil and skim off the foamy scum. Take the beef out.  Discard the water.

Star with a new clean pot and add the beef in along with 2.5 liters of boiling hot water and simmer for 2.5 hours.

3. Prepare the Ingredients That We Want to Put Into the Soup

Technically, you can use whatever you like but I want to introduce some classic items so you can recreate the local flavor. Mostly they are dried ingredients so you will have to soak then 2 hours ahead until they are fully rehydrated.

  • Raw peanut (60 grams) – The peanut that I am using has the skin on. Optionally, I will rub it off and discard it as it brings a slight beany taste. If you can find skinless peanuts, that will be even better
  • Dried day lily flower (25 grams) – It is also known as dried lily buds or golden needles. It has a unique woody, earthy aroma.
  • Dried kelp (18 grams) – It is a large, leafy brown seaweed. You can buy it in almost any asian markets because Chinese, Japanese, and Korean love to cook with kelp. It gets quite slippery after soaking so you will have to rinse it before cutting and cooking.
  • Dried wood ear fungus (10 grams) – also known as black fungus and jelly ear. It gives a nice crunchy texture which I really like. I only used 10 grams of dried forms, but the volume became much bigger once rehydrated. Slice it thinly.
  • Sweet potato starch noodles (85 grams) – Once rehydrated, cut them into 2-inch-long pieces.

Note: It is OK to use other ingredients if you don’t have access to these Chinese products, juliened cabbage, carrot, tofu, mushroom, rice noodles will also do well in this recipe. 

4. Make the Spice Powder

This is the key of Hu La Tang. It provides a lasting aroma, which is the character of this soup. Some people believe that it has many health benefits,  but there aren’t any studies about it. Toast the spices below and blend them into a fine powder. I listed all the spices below, which does look like a ton. I understand it is hard to collect all of them so if you miss one or 2 kinds, it is fine. You will not ruin the dish but the flavor will be a bit different.

  • White pepper (2.5 tsp)
  • Black pepper (2.5 tsp)
  • Piper longum (3 pieces) – It is a flowering vine in the family Piperaceae. It has a taste similar to black and white pepper, but much hotter.
  • Sichuan peppercorns (1.5 tsp)
  • Fennel seeds (1/4 tsp)
  • Star anise (1/2 of a piece)
  • Cinnamon stick (a small piece)
  • 1/8 of a nutmeg
  • Angelica dahurica root (1 piece) – It is a traditional Chinese medicine called baizhi (白芷)
  • Licorice root (2 pieces) – It has a strong sweet taste. The chinese name is Gan cao (甘草)
  • Amomum villosum pod (1 piece) – It is a plant in the ginger family. We call it Sha Ren (砂仁)
  • Black cardamon (1/4 of a piece)
  • Cloves (2 pieces)
  • White cardamon (1 piece)
  • Ginger powder (1 tsp) – it is already a powder form so I didn’t grind it.

Note: For some of these spices, I gave very small measurements such as 1/2, 1/4, or 1/8 of a piece. That is because the amount that I make is for 1 pot of soup. If you try this recipe and you love it, you can double or triple the measurements and make a big batch so next time you do need to go through all this work.

5. Put Together the Soup

When the beef stock is ready, the beef should be fall off bone tender. Remove all the bones and shred the meat with forks.

Add the shredded meat, peatnut, 3 tbsp of diced scallion, 1.5 tbsp of diced garlic, and 1/2 tbsp of finely minced ginger, day lily, kelp, wood ear fungus, and sweet potato starch noodles into the broth. Keep cooking it on low heat.

Stretch the gluten and rip it into small little pieces then put it in the soup.

Season the soup with some salt, 3 tbsp of soy sauce, 1/2 tbsp of dark soy sauce, and the spice powder.

Note: I did use all the spice powder because I like the strong and heavy flavor, but if this is the first time you are making this dish you should add it little by little to make sure it fits your preference.

Use the starch water to thicken the soup. The texture should be like gravy.

Top it with some diced cilantro. If you like it to be spicier you can drizzle in a little hot chili oil. This soup is commonly accompanied by deep-fried dough sticks. You can cut them into bite-sized pieces and soak them into the soup. In Henan province, local people will eat this as breakfast like every day. To me, it is definitely a winter warmer – better than a goose down jacket because every time I eat it, I can just feel the heat building up all over my body.


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