What Makes Suan La Fen, The Hot And Sour Glass Noodle Soup, Unique?

While your favorite summertime soups may consist of fresh seasonal veggies and ingredients with cooling effects, a classic Sichuan dish has another approach. Suan la fen, also called hot and sour glass noodle soup, lives up to its name as a tangy, savory, and spicy meal. This soup is so popular that it can be found in instant noodle versions on Chinese grocery store shelves or being sold from street vendor carts across the nation.

This dish is not to be confused with the other Sichuan-style soup known as hot and sour soup. Rather than featuring soft tofu, hearty mushrooms, and crisp bamboo shoots, suan la fen features a fiery soup base mix and its famous sweet potato noodles, along with fresh garnishes. Its long history and prevalence in the Sichuan region have made it a staple dish of this muggy province, although it's not well-known outside the country.

History of suan la fen

If you're a fan of Chinese cuisine, you've likely enjoyed your fair share of Sichuan-style foods, from hot pot to kung pao chicken to mapo tofu. This landlocked southwestern region in China is often considered the most popular of the eight Chinese cuisines. Renowned for its spicy and deeply-flavored dishes, Sichuan cooking is specifically famous for its use of the unique Sichuan peppercorn. This ingredient (not actually a pepper, but rather a dried ash tree berry) is known for its floral and citrus notes and mouth-numbing qualities, and it is often paired with chilis, garlic, and other pungent flavors.

Suan la fen originated from Chongqing, historically a part of the Sichuan province, which is why it also can go by the name Chongqing hot and sour glass noodle soup. This rainy city and the humid Sichuan province are known for their spicy, warming comfort food, and this soup fits right in. According to Travel China Guide, eating spicy ingredients is popular in this type of climate because it supposedly "helps the blood of the body flow quickly in a short time," which rids the humidity in the person's body. The name of the soup doesn't lie, it is both fiery and powerfully tangy, and its signature flavor comes from a mix of the famed Sichuan peppercorn, black vinegar, peanuts, and other special ingredients.

Ingredients in suan la fen

This hot and sour soup base is made from a mixture of chicken (although you can choose vegetable or pork) stock, chili oil, black vinegar, Sichuan peppercorn, soy sauce, and garlic. This list of ingredients may be substituted or added to depending on the region you're enjoying this soup in. However, this traditional lineup is a delicious combination that we recommend you try out for yourself.

Aside from the soup base, the sweet potato noodles are a unique staple of this dish. These thick, round, and semi-translucent noodles have the perfect balance of a slight chewiness with a soft texture. These noodles are made specifically out of sweet potato starch and not mung bean or other vegetable starches like other glass noodle varieties. They can be a bit tricky to find in the U.S., but with enough luck hunting around at your local Asian grocery store, you should be able to find some packaged varieties. 

This soup is relatively simple to throw together, and you can be slurping up some hot and fresh suan la fen in about half an hour if you follow the correct steps.

How suan la fen is made and eaten

The first step in making this soup is to prepare and measure out all the soup base ingredients. Once they're situated in a serving bowl on the side, the stock and noodles can be heated separately. After the stock has been brought to a boil and the noodles have cooked through, both of these ingredients can join the soup base ingredients in the serving bowl. The loud sizzling and fragrant smells will let you know you've done well. 

This soup is usually served in smaller bowls due to its potent nature, and it makes a great appetizer or snack between meals. Serve once the soup has cooled down slightly, and it can be topped with your ingredients of choice. Suan la fen is typically topped with some fried soybeans, crispy pork, and pickled veggies. So if you decide to add these, do keep in mind that you'll need to fry and cook these ingredients. However, you can also find a combination of peanuts, green onion, cilantro, and more that are easy to top your bowl when you're done assembling it.