Cultures as far afield as Tibet and Japan have their own unique noodle soups, and in many parts of Asia, the noodle soup is served as a breakfast dish.
Typically packed full of nutrition, with vegetables, spices and protein mixed in with a meat stock and the carbohydrate of the noodles, Asian noodle soups make excellent one-pot, one-plate meals, the perfect preparation for a day in the fields.
And, around about the time when the seasons change, they really are chicken soup for the soul, too. Here’s a very unscientific sampling of four of my favourites:
Most associated with Vietnam, you’ll also find pho on the menu in Laos, under a slightly different spelling (feu). It’s a delicious simple noodle soup in a tasty broth that you flavour yourself with mint, different types of basil, saw herb, lime, chilli (fresh, pickled or sauce), fish sauce and ingredients from vinegar to pickled garlic to cabbage and beansprouts, depending on the whim of the chef.
As is not uncommon in Vietnam, the northern and southern styles of pho are very different (in fact, when ordering pho in the north you’ll often need to specify that you want it “nuoc”, or “wet”, to get a soup). At both ends of the country, the best are served on kindergarten chairs on the pavement, out in the street.
The best pho ever? Pho bo tai, or rare beef pho, served in the southern style with loads of garnishes. I prefer it with fine white rice noodles, and the beef only barely cooked, and I like to load up the broth with lime and chilli so it comes close to a sour soup.
One of my favourite things to eat in Indonesia, this is a spicy chicken and egg noodle soup, whose name literally translates as “chicken soup”. It seems to be native to Java, Indonesia, but the Malaysians also claim creation of their own variant.
The colour, as you’d guess, comes from turmeric – not the dry powdered stuff, but the fresh root – but there’s plenty of ginger, galingale, shallots and lemon grass in the flavour mix too, as well as kaffir lime juice and lemon. To the hard-boiled egg and chicken meat, add a smattering of fresh vegetables for flavour.
You’ll find soto ayam at any roadside stand worth eating at, typically for around 5000 rupiah. It should taste spicy and fresh, but without the chilli heat, and come with a little lime for you to add yourself.
Laksa, a noodle soup commonly made with thick rice noodles, comes in so many shapes and forms across Malaysia that it’s virtually the national dish, and arguably the single most famous of Asian noodle soups. You’ll see laksa stands in hawker courts and food courts across the nation.
Curry laksa, a noodle soup based on a spicy curry sauce, is a typically Malaysian hybrid of Chinese (noodles), Indian (curry) and, well, Malay (coconut) heritage.
The Penang variant on curry laksa is curry mee, which you’ll find served nationwide. It’s a rich plate of powerful curry soup, thinned with coconut, and garnished with your choice of meat, eggs, or even fish, plus veggies too. Curry mee is served with thinner noodles than the typical laksa, which I, personally, prefer.
Kwayteow is one of those dishes that started somewhere in China and worked its way all across South-East Asia, changing the spelling and essence as it went: you’ll see variations made with thin noodles, fat noodles, torn lasagne style noodles, as a soup or as a stir-fry…
Probably my favourite of the myriad permutations on kwayteow, though, is the Thai take on it, or kuai tiao. It’s a flavoursome broth, laced with meat, rice noodles and fresh vegetables (often pickled vegetables in the north). You flavour it yourself using ingredients that include fish sauce, lime, sugar, salt and chilli.
There’s a fresh, sour spice to the finished soup that really does set you up for the day. And the Cambodian kuy teav is pretty darn good, too.
That’s me. But what about you? What are your favourite Asian noodle soups?