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The Noodle Soup Oracle
Hundreds of Possibilities for the World's Favorite Comfort Food
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Within these pages, you’ll find tried-and-true flavor combinations and start-to-finish bowl recipes, but they’re here to entice and inspire, not constrain. Add to them, subtract from them, and shatter the boundaries between ramen, saimin, and pho.
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I WAS RAISED IN HONG KONG, ON NOODLE SOUP. MY MOTHER STILL LIVES THERE, AND every couple of years I fly back from New York to visit her. I always fly Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s main international airline, for one reason: halfway through the 16-hour flight, around the time when I’ve lost all sensation below the knee and all hope generally, Cathay flight attendants glide through the cabin offering steamy bowls of instant noodles. It may be that the bar for joy is low in economy class, but passenger morale surges instantly. Those noodles are the reminder I need that I’m only a few hours away from my next bowl—the one waiting for me on my mother’s dining table. And if I’m lucky, she’ll have poached an egg in the broth.
My mother has always comforted me—and herself—with noodle soup. My parents separated when I was nine, and that was the year my mother and I really started eating a lot of it. At that time, we were living in Los Angeles, and she was working a demanding corporate job. We fell into a routine that felt tedious then, but now strikes me as verging on heroic: every weekend, she drove us out to the Taiwanese grocery store in Monterey Park and filled the trunk of our car with noodle soup provisions. Rice noodles—wide, slippery ribbons or spindly vermicelli—were her go-to starch, Swanson’s chicken broth was the preferred stand-in when there wasn’t time (and there rarely was) to make her own, and her favorite toppings—peeled shrimp, thinly sliced chicken breast, clusters of baby bok choy—were the ones she could poach right in the simmering stock. To my mother, “noodle soup” didn’t mean tonkotsu ramen or an eight-hour pho. In a chaotic year, it meant a blank slate, ready to be inscribed with dinner.
Although my relationship with my mother has never been what one might call harmonious, in the kitchen, at least, I am my mother’s daughter. In my twenties, I went to culinary school and trained in a very refined sort of French cooking, but, with love and respect to Escoffier, I found nothing in the classical French kitchen to quite match the rush of well-being I get from a bowl of brothy noodles. If I’m tired, under the weather, or on a deadline—fittingly, my consumption skyrocketed in the final stretch of this very manuscript—noodle soup is almost always what I reach for. The rewards of this dish aren’t just the warm, soothing, sensory ones; they’re in the very versatility of its composition. I have certainly spent whole afternoons simmering pork bones over a wispy flame and pleating wontons until I enter a sort of trance, but with some clever shopping and thoughtful freezer-stocking, I’ve gotten a bowl on the table in 20 minutes, too. It’s just that kind of a dish.
In the beginning, noodle soup was a Chinese dish. Sometime in the third century, the poet Hong Ju boasted of downing ten bowls (small ones, I assume) in one sitting, likening the gleaming white noodles to strands of autumn silk. Over the centuries, noodle soup traveled through Asia on the same trade routes that carried silk, tea, and spices; today, it’s eaten from Tokyo to Tashkent, across a territory spanning some 4,000 miles. In some languages, the name of the dish still displays its Chinese origins—Japanese ramen and Uzbek lagman both clearly derive from lamian, Mandarin for “pulled noodles”—but the flavors have long since declared independence. Every region has imprinted noodle soup with its own distinct character.
In the 1950s, street vendors in my native Hong Kong began selling a sort of choose-your-own-adventure noodle soup from alleyways and sidewalks. Compact metal pushcarts were equipped with a vat of broth, an array of noodles, and a profusion of good things to top them with; from this arsenal of noodle soup components, customers were invited to compose exactly the bowl they wanted to eat. It caught on. To this day, the tradition of “little cart noodles” lives on in Hong Kong’s greasy spoons—minus the little cart. In its place: a menu printed with a complete inventory of the establishment’s noodle soup offerings and a checkbox next to each item. Diners take a pencil and weigh their options. While one ticks the boxes next to udon noodles, fishballs, and shiitake mushrooms, her companion is building a bowl out of egg noodles, wontons, and poached greens.
I invite you to approach this book the way you might a street vendor’s noodle cart in old Hong Kong. Peer into it, see what tempts you, and build the bowl that sounds good to you in that moment. Then, come back another day and construct an entirely new one. Whatever you create, take heart in the knowledge that you’re participating in a venerable tradition. The goal of this book is to radically expand the notion of what “noodle soup” can mean, showcasing the much freer way it is prepared in homes across Asia, and the very personal way I prepare it in mine. The bowl I want to empower the reader of this book to prepare is one that doesn’t have any particular name. It’s bespoke.
This book is a resource for every level of noodle soup engagement. If you have three hours to spare on a Sunday afternoon, it will guide you through making a broth from scratch. If it’s 8 o’clock on a Tuesday night, it will show you the quickest way to perk up that half-used carton of chicken stock in your fridge. Even if your starting point is a packet of instant ramen, there are ways to make it nourishing and beautiful.
As far back as the thirteenth century, the Chinese poet Lin Hong wrote that he liked his noodle soup topped with stir-fried chives, a sprinkling of sugar, and a splash of vinegar—a combination he called “my favorite noodles.” This book is about finding yours.
How to Use This Book
THIS BOOK IS A COMPLETE COURSE IN DESIGNING YOUR OWN NOODLE SOUP. IT’S structured a little differently from a traditional cookbook. Start-to-finish instructions for preparing any one bowl make up a relatively small part of this book; instead, it’s centered on mix-and-match combinations for noodles, broths, and toppings. It’s up to you to combine them into the dish you want to eat.
First, you’ll choose your noodle. The Noodles chapter (here) will talk you through the major types and how to pair and prepare them. Next, pick your soup. The Broths chapter (here) has recipes you can make from scratch, cheat’s versions that start with a box or a can, and no judgment either way. Finally, decide what will go on top. The Toppings chapter (here) deals with the proteins, vegetables, accents, and flourishes that will give your bowl color and character.
The broth and topping recipes in this book can be mixed and matched infinitely, but some combinations are more harmonious than others. Building a Balanced Bowl (here) is a guide to deciding which elements work together and which don’t. It may take a little practice before you feel confident freestyling a noodle soup—until you do, consult the Complete Bowls chapter (here) for step-by-step recipes for tried-and-tested combinations.
A final note: Sprinkled throughout are full-page illustrations of noodle bowls composed from the modular recipes in this book. Each one is an expression of what a freestyle noodle soup might look like. I hope they will entice and inspire you, but not constrain you. Think of them as starting points, not straitjackets. Add to them, subtract from them, and play around; if you never follow a combination exactly as it is written, I will have done my job.
Building a Balanced Bowl
A TYPICAL BOWL OF NOODLE SOUP CONTAINS ABOUT 4 OUNCES (120 G) OF NOODLES and roughly 1½ cups (350 ml) of broth. If you’re working with a rice noodle, serve it in a light, clear broth; a noodle made of wheat or buckwheat will require a broth with more body. (The principles of pairing noodles with broth are covered in more detail in the Noodles chapter on here.)
The noodles provide the bulk of the sustenance, but the toppings are what will make the dish interesting. Aim to have two or three of them, including at least one protein and one vegetable, and portion conservatively: if you can’t see the noodles through the toppings, you’ve overloaded your bowl.
When choosing your toppings, first consider how they’ll play with the broth. The assertive aromatics in Tom Yum Broth (here) call for plain, unsauced toppings; likewise, heavily sauced proteins like Vietnamese Lacquered Skirt Steak (here) or Miso Ratatouille (here) need a neutral broth for a backdrop. Within these limitations, select your toppings to offer the greatest range of flavors, textures, and colors. Set off melting slabs of Chashu Pork Belly (here) against tart, crunchy slivers of Sichuan-Style Pickled Green Cabbage (here), or balance a boldly seasoned element like Seven-Spice Roasted Kabocha Squash (here) with simply cooked Perfect Seared Scallops (here). Avoid groups of ingredients that are all one color.
Once you’ve topped modestly, garnish lavishly. Condiments and fresh herbs will help you sprinkle, scatter, and drizzle your way out of any problems in your composition. If your bowl until now has been a wan tableau of beiges and browns, something as simple as a handful of torn cilantro and a chopped bird’s eye chile will make it look and taste vibrant. If your broth feels a little thin, a few drops of an aromatic oil-based condiment—a store-bought chile oil or your own homemade Extra-Fragrant Garlic-Sesame Oil (here)—will give it richness and gloss.
Composing a bowl is a balancing act, not only of colors and flavors, but also of timing. As a rule, there should be only one labor-intensive element per bowl. If you just folded thirty-five Pork and Kimchi Dumplings (here), give yourself a break and poach some leafy greens in the same pot you boil the dumplings in; now is not the time to be julienning a stack of carrots for Carrot Kinpira (here) or making your own Aromatic Chile Jam (here) from scratch. A well-conceived noodle soup is a nesting doll of kitchen tasks, each one descending in prep time and difficulty.
In time, you’ll have frozen broths on hand that are as convenient as store-bought, develop an eye for leftovers that can be repurposed as noodle soup toppings, and amass jars of condiments and garnishes that add color and interest to the humblest bowls. Composing a noodle soup will become second nature.
ASSEMBLING THE BOWL
Prepare the mise-en-place
Gather your toppings in separate bowls, reheat them if necessary, and place them all within easy reach. When every element is ready to go, bring your broth to a strong simmer and get started on cooking the noodles.
Arrange the toppings
Once the noodles have been cooked, drained, and divided among the serving bowls, you are ready to start styling the toppings. Show each one off in a distinct, tidy pile; build height where you can and fan sliced meat out like petals. Use a freer hand with the garnishes, letting them fall where they will.
Set the table
In Asia, the diner always adjusts the bowl according to personal preference, drawing from a range of table condiments. The accoutrements you reach for don’t have to be complicated, but they should be abundant. Put out soy sauce or fish sauce for seasoning, vinegar or lime wedges for acidity, and, crucially, some form of heat, whether it’s chopped fresh chiles, a ramekin of homemade Soy-Pickled Jalapeños (here), or just a bottle of a beloved hot sauce. Adding texture is important, too, so offer extra garnishes like Crispy Garlic Chips (here), Crispy Fried Shallots (here), or crushed roasted peanuts.
Add the broth
I recommend carrying the bowls out before you’ve added the broth, and doing the ladling at the dining table. This avoids spilled soup and burnt fingertips and ensures that the noodles will be al dente when you sit down to eat them. Be gentle when you ladle the broth into the bowls, so you don’t undo all the careful styling you’ve just done.
Building a Pantry
IN THIS BOOK, I REFER OFTEN TO “ASIAN” SUPERMARKETS, WHICH IS A BROAD AND imperfect term. As a rule, if I am looking for a large selection or especially fine expression of, say, a Japanese or Korean ingredient, I will head to a store that specializes in the products of that country; otherwise, I know that a Chinese grocery store will have a little of everything. If you are just starting to build your noodle soup arsenal, a big Chinese supermarket is a great place to start.
My preferred soy sauces are Chinese-made and labeled “light” soy sauce (they tend to be a little stronger and saltier than Japanese soy sauces), but the ubiquitous Kikkoman is perfectly acceptable. A few recipes call for dark soy sauce—a thicker, sweeter variety that gives color and depth to braised dishes; this one you will have to seek out in a Chinese supermarket.
Fish sauce, a pungent liquid extracted from salted, fermented fish, is indispensable in Thai and Vietnamese cooking. Once it is dispersed throughout a dish, all that remains of the aggressive initial funk is a sturdy umami and not a trace of fishiness.
Used extensively in Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai cooking, oyster sauce is a sort of umami ketchup—a sweeter, mellower, gloopier answer to fish sauce. There’s also a vegetarian version, with mushroom extracts doing the work of the oysters (and quite effectively). It’s great as a stir-fry sauce or a dipping sauce for blanched vegetables.
Make sure that the rice vinegar in your pantry is not seasoned rice vinegar, which contains sake, salt, and sugar and is intended to be added to cooked rice for sushi.
There are two kinds of sesame oil: one is dark brown, intensely aromatic, and used in Asian cuisines as a condiment; the other is colorless, odorless, and sold as a neutral cooking oil. This book calls exclusively for the first kind.
Shaoxing wine is made from glutinous rice; it has a dark amber color and a powerfully nutty aroma. Like any product sold as cooking wine, the stuff you can buy in a Chinese supermarket has a lot of salt added to it. A tablespoon or two won’t throw off your seasoning, but in larger quantities, you may want to track down a premium Shaoxing wine at a Chinatown liquor store or substitute a dry sherry.
Good sake is made from rice grains polished almost to obliteration, exudes aromas that may be creamy or floral or earthy, and has a brief shelf life. Buy good sake for your own imbibement, but not on account of this book. Almost any liquor store will have one bottle of mass-market, pasteurized, unflavored sake. It will keep in your fridge, opened, for about 2 months, and it will do the job just fine for the recipes herein.
Mirin is a sweet Japanese rice wine used exclusively for cooking. Most of the mirin available in the West is aji-mirin, an industrial product that has been sweetened with corn syrup. You can find the real thing—hon-mirin—in Japanese specialty stores, but it’s not critical for the recipes in this book.
JARS & TUBS
Miso paste, an intensely savory Japanese condiment made from fermented soybeans, is good for a lot more than soup. We’ll use it to glaze fish (here), as a marinade for chicken (here), and in a compound butter for dressing roasted carrots (here). Miso is sold in white, yellow, and red varieties; as a rule, the darker the color, the longer it’s been fermented and the saltier and more intense the flavor. If you are going to keep just one tub in your fridge, choose the middle-of-the-road yellow miso.
This salty, funky paste of fermented soy and broad beans with added spices is China’s amped-up answer to miso. It’s available with and without chiles; the recipes in this book only call for the spicy kind.
Another seasoned miso paste, this time from Korea. Made with glutinous rice and dried chiles, it’s only mildly spicy but extremely sweet and sticky.
Hoisin is the Cantonese word for seafood. It is a mystery—even to the Cantonese—how this sauce, which doesn’t contain seafood and isn’t commonly served with it, got its name. Made from a base of fermented soybeans, the dark paste is sweet and tangy in a way that recalls barbecue sauce, but thicker and earthier in flavor. In Chinese kitchens, it’s often used to glaze meats, cooking down to a glossy mahogany; on Vietnamese tables, it’s squirted into pho broth or served on the side as a dipping sauce for the beef.
At once tart, fiery, and powerfully salty, this Japanese paste is made by fermenting chiles with the zest and juice of the grapefruit-like yuzu. The tiny jars it’s sold in seem almost stingy until you realize a little goes a very long way. It comes in red and green, of which the green is the slightly spicier and more common variety.
Preserved mustard greens
Salted, fermented mustard greens can be found in the condiment section of Chinese grocery stores. The briny, pungent greens are indispensable in Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (here) and Crossing-the-Bridge Noodles (here), but you can add a spoonful to any bowl that needs a jolt of sharp flavor. If possible, buy a pre-chopped version; if the greens were left whole, gently rinse and finely chop them before using.
Kombu is a sun-dried kelp used in the Japanese kitchen as a sort of naturally occurring stock cube. The brittle black sheets feel almost plastic right out of the bag, but they soften and swell as they release their umami into hot water. Use scissors to snip them into size for recipes.
Dried bonito flakes (Katsuobushi)
When you salt, smoke, dry, ferment, and, finally, shave a bonito fish, these deceptively wispy, staggeringly flavorful pink flakes are what you end up with. Add kombu and water, and you have dashi, the essential stock of Japanese cuisine.
Drying mushrooms intensifies their flavor so dramatically that once you’ve cooked with the rehydrated specimens, you may never go back to fresh. In this book, we’ll be soaking them, braising them, and pickling them; but any time you’re making a broth that seems a little wan, just throwing one in the stockpot will add substantial depth of flavor. The mushrooms vary considerably in size; find the plumpest ones (and best values) at Asian markets.
Dried baby shrimp
These tiny umami bombs are sold in small packages in most Asian grocery stores. Choose shrimp with a healthy orange color, avoiding gray or brown specimens as well as any that seem suspiciously vibrant (it’s probably food coloring). Dried shrimp are shelf-stable in their original packaging but should be refrigerated or frozen once opened.
Literally “seven-flavor chile pepper,” this is the crimson bullet of seasoning found on every ramen counter. The complex blend of spices (hot chiles, numbing sansho pepper, white and black sesame, dried orange peel, ground ginger, hemp seeds, and poppy seeds) adds only mild heat but plenty of savory depth. The Japanese use it more for seasoning finished dishes than for cooking, but I love it as a dry rub for roasted vegetables.
EQUIPMENT & UTENSILS
I recommend a heavy-bottomed stockpot that holds at least 8 quarts, ideally 12.
A large, flat spoon works just fine for skimming fat and impurities from the surface of your broth, but this purpose-built tool does it so much faster, and takes less soup with it.
A broth-making essential. You can’t make a clear broth without one.
A noodle basket is essentially a small strainer that hooks onto the rim of a pot. It holds single portions of noodles (or vegetables or shrimp) as they cook, allowing you to scoop them straight out of the water and skip that whole dance over to the sink with the colander.
You’re going to be doing a lot of blanching and poaching. This long-handled wire basket, which looks less like a spider than it does its web, makes it easy to transfer ingredients straight from pot to serving bowl.
I know you know what chopsticks are and already own a few pairs. But, it might be worth acquiring a few more to use as smaller, more precise kitchen tongs. They’re the ideal instrument for portioning noodles, positioning your toppings, and flipping delicate things over in skillets.
Deep serving bowls
Most Western soup bowls are a tight squeeze for noodle soup—you want something really capacious. Chinese and Japanese supermarkets are great sources for gorgeous, relatively inexpensive ceramic bowls. I often find myself going in for a condiment and coming out with a wholly unnecessary addition to my already irresponsibly large bowl collection.
Noodle soup is more fun to eat with a Chinese-style ceramic spoon, which delivers more broth per spoonful than a Western soup spoon. Look for spoons with hooked handles; they grab onto the rim of the bowl so they don’t slip under the broth.
- On Sale
- Oct 8, 2019
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Running Press