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Oodles of Noodles

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taiwan beef noodle featured

It’s almost always some ungodly hour and I am more often than not intoxicated, lingering in the nowhere land between night and day. Lost in my messy thoughts or sometimes having absolutely none at all, I sit and stare at a pool of noodle soup, watching as little green flecks of spring onion float idly by. Red dots and black sesame seeds form swirls of consciousness, mimicking the swirling feeling in my head. Glimmers of fragrant oils seem to mock my very existence. Firm, silky noodles that never seem to come to an end … an infinite line that you dare not cut or break with your teeth. With every slurp I sink deeper into meditation… Those noodles are like an umbilical cord to the bowl that holds every precious thought and the dark depths and desires of my soul. It’s the existentialist bowl of noodles. Has it all come down to this, my bowl of noodle soup and I? Does anything else really matter? When at that very instant the slippery entanglement of noodles and the rich, enveloping broth is so comforting? Who cares is the world is crumbling around me? A moment of pure solidarity with me, myself and I. Nothing matters. Only my noodle soup.

Here are some deliciously indulgent noodle soup recipes you can make at home. To read the rest of my unedited version of an article I wrote for Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia’s July 2015 issue on Noodle Existentialism, scroll to the bottom.

Slurp your way to love and light, Stephanie

Taiwan – The most iconic of Taiwanese noodle soup is the Hong Shao Nieu Rou Mian or beef noodle soup characterized by a hearty braised beef and soy stock with fragrant tangerine and star anise notes served with bokchoy and fresh coriander leaves.

The featured photo is a stunning recipe on SoulMix.Com .

lanzhou beef noodle and khao poon

China – The empirical birthplace of noodles with a vast variety that differs with each region. Classified by either base ingredient: wheat, egg or lye water, rice and other starches like mung bean or tapioca and also by process: cut, extruded, peeled, pulled or kneaded, the plethora of noodle dishes are best embodied by the Shanxi International Noodle Cultural Festival where noodle making is turned into a full blown performance art. Despite the region having over 280 kinds, Shanxi is famous for a particular type of shaved noodle called dao xiao mian.

Try this beautiful rich recipe of Langzhou Noodles from Woks of Life.

Laos – Apart from China, a close runner up to being the noodle soup capital is Laos with a myriad of types from the clearer, cleaner Khao Poon similar to Vietnamese Pho (in fact they do have their own version of Pho) to the spicy coconut and pork based khao pun nahm phik, like that of curry soups Golden Triangle region.

A light yet flavorful concoction is this Khao Poon by Simple Comfort Food .

salmon udon

Japan – The possibilities are endless with different broth bases from the very clear dashi to the rich hearty tonkotsu but most noodle soups use either the wavy thin chinese style ramen, thin and chewy buckwheat soba or the thicker and denser udon.

This recipe for Miso Udon with Sesame Salmon is great for a hearty but healthy lunch from Taste.com.au .

pho ga 1

Vietnam – Looking beyond the iconic banh phan – rice noodle based Pho, the Vietnamese also enjoy the clear mung bean based mian noodles and the thicker tapioca-rice based banh canh noodles. All their soups are characterized by fragrant broths seasoned with fish sauce, charred onions, star anise, cinnamon and ginger, sometimes lemongrass and generously topped with fresh herbs, sprouts and limes.

Who doesn’t love a good Pho? Here’s an easy recipe for Chicken Pho published by the Boston Globe.

pancit molo 1

Philippines – Despite being mostly clear broths, Filipino noodle soups are packed in flavor, enriched with umami filled ingredients like dried shrimp and crispy pork rinds. Every region or town tends to have their own versions and variations but the local favorites are the egg noodle based Batchoy, pork filled and scallion filled wonton Pansit Molo and healthy but hearty miswa with patola or luffa gourd.

A wonderful take on Pancit Molo by Food 52.

yukgaejang 1KoreaKalguksu is a dish of hand-made knife cut egg noodles that swim in a seafood based broth made from dried anchovies, shellfish and kelp more often than not enjoyed in the summer. The soup can also be made with chicken or beef stock and served with a variety of garnishes like scallions and nori. Looking for that signature Korean fiery heat? Try the Korean-Chinese Jjam Bbong, a bowl of jajamyeong hand pulled noodles enveloped in a red hot seafood broth.

Check out this wonderful Yukgaejang or Spicy Beef Soup with Vegetables from Korean Bapsang .

laksa 1Singapore and Malaysia – Both countries are a melting pot of cultures which translates directly into the soup pot. Southeast Asian aromas in the fragrant rice noodle, coconut and shrimp Laksa, richer Indochina flavors for their Curry Mee and more Chinese influenced egg noodle based Banh Mian and Lor Mee.

Try this King Prawn Laksa from Taste.com.au .

khao soi

Thailand – The two most iconic noodle soups in Thailand are the Kuay Tiew Rua or boat noodles and Khao Soi. The former is made from a potent combination of dark soy, pork and beef, pigs blood and fermented tofu and takes its name after where it used to be made and sold – on tiny kitchen boats floating by the canals of Bangkok. Khao Soi is a spicy coconut curry based dish found in Northern Thailand and is rather emblematic of the Golden Triangle region.

This is a beautiful Khao Soi recipe by Bon Appetit.

nuhm banh chok 1Cambodia – Usually eaten for breakfast Kuy Teav is a pork-based Cambodian soup with clear Chinese origins, dressed with oyster sauce, caramelized garlic oil and some sugar then top with fresh herbs and sprouts for more local fresh flair. Another wonderful Khmer dish is Nuhm Banh Chok, a chilled fish curry soup with fresh vegetables and grassy herbs – perfect for a snack after a long warm day of visiting temples.

Here’s a nice easy to follow recipe of this chilled delight from Stuff.co.nz .

mohinga noodlesMyanmar – Considered to be the national dish of Myanmar, Mohinga is a fish and rice noodle soup is made with citrusy lemongrass, savory fish sauce and paste, floral banana tree stems, nutty toasted crushed rice or chickpea flour and fleshy catfish. For more texture try it topped with crispy fritters! However, there is another Burmese noodle dish that vies for the spotlight, Ohn No Khao Schwe or coconut chicken noodles. Some people believe that the famous northern Thai Khao Soi is derived from it. Ohn No Khao Schwe is a bowl of egg noodles in a thick but mild paprika and ginger based curry topped with boiled eggs and crispy rice noodles.

Here’s a really easy to follow and tasty recipe of Mohinga by The Domestic Man .

pho from market

Noodle Existentialism

by Stephanie Zubiri

It’s almost always some ungodly hour and I am more often than not intoxicated, lingering in the nowhere land between night and day. Lost in my messy thoughts or sometimes having absolutely none at all, I sit and stare at a pool of noodle soup, watching as little green flecks of spring onion float idly by. Red dots and black sesame seeds form swirls of consciousness, mimicking the swirling feeling in my head. Glimmers of fragrant oils seem to mock my very existence. Firm, silky noodles that never seem to come to an end … an infinite line that you dare not cut or break with your teeth. With every slurp I sink deeper into meditation… Those noodles are like an umbilical cord to the bowl that holds every precious thought and the dark depths and desires of my soul. It’s the existentialist bowl of noodles. Has it all come down to this, my bowl of noodle soup and I? Does anything else really matter? When at that very instant the slippery entanglement of noodles and the rich, enveloping broth is so comforting? Who cares is the world is crumbling around me? A moment of pure solidarity with me, myself and I. Nothing matters. Only my noodle soup.

The ubiquitous food staple made from some sort of mélange of flour and water to form a dough, is present all across Asia, from the Far East even popping up in the Pacific Rim finding its way to some dishes in Hawaii, making its way through Central Asia (with a notable absence in the Indian Sub-Continent) all the way to Turkey and crossing continents right into Europe to reunite with its close relative – pasta. It seems that in 2005 the battle for who invented the noodle was definitively won when a well-preserved 4,000 year old bowl of noodles was unearthed at the Lajia archaeological site in Northwestern China. And while it may not be, as legends would have us believe, Marco Polo who brought it to the west, noodles empirically thus far did originate in China or at least thereabouts. The climate of the region favored cereal crops which were well adapted to making doughs for breads and eventually noodles. Jen Lin-Liu author of “On The Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta” writes in her book that the earliest traditions of eating noodles in China were actually bits of bread in their soup. She explains in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “The first noodles in China were called tang bing, or soup bread. So I think the history of noodles is really intertwined with the history of bread.”

In Alan Davidson’s “Oxford Companion to Food” it is explained that noodle making flourished in Ancient China and that “it is likely that large-scale commercial production was already well under way in Han Chine, about AD 100, following the introduction of wheat milling technology, probably imported from the Middle East.” The versatile concept adapted easily to what crop was available giving birth to a plethora of types of Asian noodles mostly based on the different kinds of flour used as opposed to shapes as it is in Europe. Whether they are made from wheat, millet, rice, barley, mung bean or soy flour; ribbons, hand-cut strips, pulled strands, shaved, small bite sized bits, or stuffed, it seems that noodles are also closely linked to soup. Noodles were an easy way to turn a simple broth with frugal ingredients into a filling meal. In fact, it was Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese inventor of instant noodles’ who believed that “peace will come to the world if people had enough to eat” and his solution to that was the inexpensive, practically imperishable cup noodles.

Chinese influence in cuisine and in general across Asia would merit not just its own article but its own book but the best example to illustrate the noodle diaspora would be to look at the unique mix of noodle dishes the Philippines has to offer. Generally referred to as pansit, derived from the Hokkien expression pianesit or something conveniently cooked, it is most commonly eaten as a snack. The earliest record of restaurants in the Philippines were called pansiterias by Spanish colonials whose influence in cooking them is also prevalent. Today, the actual noodles are still known by their Chinese names: bihon (thin rice vermicelli), miswa (extremely fine dried wheat noodles), the mung bean based sotanghon, and the egg and wheat based miki used in the most famous noodle soup La Paz Batchoy from Iloilo. In the Chinese quarter of the same city, originated another extremely popular noodle soup is the filled dumpling Pansit Molo. Clearly in the Philippines noodles were brought by the Chinese traders and immigrants from the Hokkien region. The stories are rather similar in the rest of Asia, notably in the other major noodle civilization of the world Japan. Menrui the generic Japanese term for noodles is an adaptation of the Chinese mien or mian and was introduced to the Nippon archipelago during the Nara period between 710 – 794 AD when the imperial court sent multiple envoys to the Tang Court in the hopes of absorbing more of the Chinese culture. The first noodles of Japan were wheat and buckwheat based mostly in the form of udon and soba. It is only after the Second World War that the chinese style, cult-like ramen entered the picture.

Whether it’s room service Pho Ga in Ho Chi Minh or mingling with dumplings in Wan Chai or a cup of instant Tom Yum Spicy Noodles from 7/Eleven in some Soi in Bangkok, I will shamefully admit I’ve had noodle soup – drunk – all across the region. My sad claim to fame. The thing is, unlike most foodies, who go off in search for the best of the best, that one “noodle master” descends directly from the golden noodle gods or that one cook who had never shut off the fire from his pot of simmering broth for the last hundred years, no… unfortunately I’m a pretty cheap date. And considering noodles are already pretty inexpensive, I’m dirt cheap, because just about any bowl of noodle soup will do at 3 am. I love the way the steam hits my face, intoxicating me further with the smell, the way the long strands slip upwards for a momentary chew and then down my throat, the way the hot broth suffuses my body with warmth and happiness, like a big giant bear hug from the inside.

Why are they so comforting? Why is it when we are sad, desolate, depressed or just extremely hungry why is it that only a bowl of noodle soup will do? Filipino restaurateur and ramen aficionado Elbert Cuenca has an interesting theory. “I think this is the effect of umami, when you have an overload of umami and it melts together, and it can really spark an emotional response. It’s almost like endorphins, all those feel good chemicals in your body are activated from the flavor, the temperature and the texture of the noodles.” I then realize I have been looking at this all wrong – yes the noodles are important but everything begins with the broth.

Even Hongkong based food writer Janice Leung agrees “The broth is probably the most important thing for me, because even the best noodles will be disappointing if they’re in a bowl of badly made soup. I love the sensation of slurping the noodles up, with the soup just coating the strands, and the delicious steam of hot soup wafting above the bowl.” A highly charged bowl of fiery Singaporean laksa evokes the same opinion from food blogger Dr. Leslie Tay, “the noodles are just there for texture, for me it’s the soup, the broth, it’s the whole concoction. It’s a very tasty thing. So perfect and balanced, spicy, sweet, everything you ever wanted from a dish.”

Whether crystal clear pho or murky tonkotsu or creamy coconut khao soy the consensus is that the best broths are made from hours of simmering and stewing. In some of the best noodle joints across Asia, having a continuously heating pot of master stock to which they simply add more water everyday is not uncommon. This is more likely the case with clearer stocks such as Vietnamese Pho or Taiwanese Beef Rib Soup. For the more complex soups with the coconut base

Ramen King Shigemi Kawahara’s Shiromaru Tonkotsu broth is simmered over 18 hours and the stock is reduced three times, he recommends sipping the broth first to honor it before slurping the noodles. Hideaki Aoyama, who works with Cuenca in two ramen establishments and is in direct “ramen lineage” to the Ramen God Yamagishi Kazuo, his beef stock simmers for 14 hours not counting the crazy mis-en-place that led up to that big pot of soup. However, despite all this effort put into the broth he believes it is about balance. “Even the toppings are very important.”

Another soup that has a cult-like following is the Vietnamese Pho, which I personally prefer over ramen. The light yet flavorful broth, bright fresh herbs, barely cooked slivers of meat and a tumble of white rice ribbons. “The two most important elements are the banh pho rice noodle and the pho broth itself” explains Cuong Huynh, founder of lovingpho.com and Pho consultant. “Almost all noodle dishes succeed or fail based purely on these two elements. The pho noodle must be a touch more cooked beyond al dente but not too much, and the broth should have the proper spiced fragrance, clearness, and unique delicious pho taste right out of the pot without any need for additional enhancing sauces, seasonings or condiments.” Rice noodles alone are pretty tasteless but have an interesting texture that is very different for the wheat or egg variety. When cooked properly it is very firm as opposed to springy or chewy, and have a very solid, slippery feel in the mouth. It cooks extremely fast and can turn clumpy and mushy when overdone. It is also the perfect companion to the richer coconut or peanut based soups found in parts of Southeast Asia such as Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Their noodle soups seem to be more of a wet version of their usual curry and rice staples and also meant to be a base for a more personal creation. Chiang Mai based food writer and editor Pim Kemasingki shares that “like most Thais, I am constantly on a quest to find a great bowl of noodles. This lifelong odyssey has brought some remarkable flavors to my greedy mouth but the secret to a perfect bowl of noodle soup is that it is completely personal. You flavor it yourself, thereby bespoking your own perfect bowl of yumminess.”

I do believe though that no amount of personalization through means of dipping sauces, chili oil, leaves or sprouts can mask a poor soup with a mushy mess. Even the most basic of instant noodles give you a certain time frame and a fill-to-this-line guide to recreate that sought after balance and firmness. So yes. We are back to the noodle and more specifically how it’s cooked and how long has it been languishing in the bowl of steaming hot broth.

“There is a window of ramen at its peak” shares Ryan Cruz co-owner of Mendokoro. “The Japanese can slurp a bowl of ramen in eight minutes or less, after those eight minutes your ramen has started to deteriorate. The broth slowly becoming lackluster and cold, the noodles losing its bite.” How does one eat a scalding bowl of soup and noodles without burning your palate? Take a tip from the Japanese – zuzutto – the act of slurping and inhaling both soup and noodle in one go with the intention of aerating the hot broth and achieving the perfect combination of the two key elements.

I can’t help it but flashes of scenes from the Japanese cult “ramen western” movie “Tampopo” flash through my head. The plot simply put is as follows: a young widow spends her days struggling to keep her husbands noodle shop alive. This damsel in distress is rescued by a lone wandering, cowboy hat wearing truck driver stranger with a comical sidekick and they embark on an adventure together to create the best ramen possible and everything began with the broth. Her triumphant perfect bowl in the end is the culmination of her hard work, her struggle for rebirth, a new lease on life embodied in one small bowl of noodle soup. In the beginning of the film there is this scene with a ramen master sets the tone for the movie…

“Sensei, soup first or noodles first?”

“First observe the whole bowl.”

“Yes sir.”

“Appreciate its gestalt, savor the aromas, jewels of fat glistening on the surface. Shinashiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play a key role but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.”

“What for?”

“To express affection.”

It shows how much reverence, respect and appreciation one should have for even the smallest of things. That bowl is not just noodles and broth but someone else’s life’s work… A testament to their existence and a comfort to mine… even if it comes from a paper cup at 4 a.m. Arigato gozaymas Mr. Ando!

***the final edited article appeared first in the July 2015 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia***

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Stephanie
Stephanie
Writer. Traveller. Wino. Foodie. Bohemian at heart. "You can not travel the path until you have become the path itself." - Buddha


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We are two friends who were former magazine editors. Having moved onto other things, we both realized that the creative flow the publishing world used to offer us was missing from our lives. Armed with a common love of travel to the exotic and familiar, a penchant for the bohemian, an obsession with food and a lust for writing, we decided to collaborate our unique and fashionable journeys through life together in one passion project.

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