BEST BITES: Hot, sour and very very, tasty

This edition of Best Bites takes a look at the delicious hot and sour soup at one of the longest-serving restaurants in Guelph

It’s a shiny Lunar New Year and the hardworking metal Ox reigns supreme for 2021.

As with previous Best Bites columns thus far, I’ve been hyper-focussed on comfort. Covid continues to demand a little comfort, as does February, so let’s turn our attention to soup. The perfect winter food.

Looking at 18th century Paris we see how the modern restaurant industry is almost certainly based on soup, a common dish served at first by street vendors, and then ultimately in public eateries. Sold to restore energy or heal fatigue, and billed as restoratifs — meaning to restore — is the origin of the word restaurant.

As we move further back through time, it’s been suggested that soup is as old as the history of cooking. In fact, the earliest instance of soup dates back to 20,000 BC where ancient pottery in Xianrendong Cave, China, revealed scorch marks indicative of a hot soup pot. A hole would have been dug in the ground, then lined with animal skins which was used to boil water using hot stones.

Let’s focus on one nourishing soup in particular.

Depending on the source, suan-la tang (hot and sour soup) appears to have emerged from the Sichuan Province as a staple of Chinese cooking. While this dish remains popular only in certain regions of the country, it is undeniably ancient and is characteristic of traditional recipes unique to the whole country. Suan-sa tang simply means “peppered vinegar soup” which is composed of a thickened broth, seasoned with either black or white pepper, hot pepper and flavoured with vinegar. Although ingredients have evolved over time and regionality, the central flavour is essentially the same everywhere.

Hot, sour and very tasty.

Wok’s Taste on Carden Street has been around for almost 40 years. Or longer? That’s an impressive history of thriving in one place. It wasn’t the first Chinese restaurant in Guelph, however. Quite a few restaurants were owned and operated by Chinese immigrants relegated by law to the downtown core, but they tended to serve a mostly British North American diet to a predominantly white clientele.

Located just a little further up Carden Street from where Wok’s Taste is now, it was The British Columbia Cafe (BC Cafe) which introduced Guelph to Chinese cuisine between the 1920s and into the 1940s, while offering the Guelph Chinese community more familiar and traditional food. An anglicized name for this type of business was not at all unusual as an attempt to integrate into their new community. In the first half of the 20th century, Guelph saw The Grange, the (Chinese) Dominion Cafe, City Cafe, Central Cafe and the Star Cafe, all owned and operated by new Chinese Canadians.

Having grown up eating good Chinese food is what initially drove me through the doors of Wok’s Taste. It was here in the mid-1980s that I had my first taste of their hot and sour soup. As a student, the price for a large bowl suited my budget — still does. It’s been my go-to cure for a cold ever since. In my mind, being both hot and sour is the key to conquering a virus. At least that’s what I tell myself while diving into either a vegetarian or more traditional meat version of the dish.

Yana is the current owner of Wok’s Taste, serving an extensive menu of both Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine beyond this delicious soup. She’s proudly following in the footsteps of those who came before on the very same street. If you visit her today, she might just say, “Gōng hè xīn xǐ, zhù shēn tǐ jiàn kāng” — Happy New Year, I wish you good health.

Wok’s Taste is at 16 Carden St., Guelph. 

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