Four Fabulous Asian Noodle Soups

Lao feu noodle soup.Asian noodle soups are one of the great joys of travelling South-East Asia – and, for that matter, Asia as a whole.

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:

Pho sitting ready for preparation in Hue, Vietnam.


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.

Asian Noodle Soups: soto ayam.

Soto Ayam

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.

Asian Noodle Soups: Malaysian curry mee.

Curry Mee

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.

Asian noodle soups

Kuai Tiao

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?

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Comments: 12

  1. fotoeins | Henry November 20, 2012 at 5:40 pm Reply

    My faves, which betray my southern Chinese roots:

    * wonton noodle soup (雲吞麵)
    * beef brisket noodle soup (牛腩麵)
    * preferably, wonton + beef brisket noodle soup, about which I found and slurped up in Hong Kong’s Central district and wrote in my blog … 🙂

    Excuse me, but your post is making me hungry …

    • Theodora November 21, 2012 at 6:25 am Reply

      Wontons AND noodles? Wow. Though, the thought of beef brisket is making me hungry. I’m not very good on southern Chinese cooking, I must confess. Better on Yunnan and Sichuan. Although we’re off to China quite soon and I can’t WAIT to eat lots and lots and lots of Chinese food…

  2. fotoeins | Henry November 21, 2012 at 11:04 pm Reply

    Hi, Theodora – at the risk of promoting my own blog, I’ll say instead that I’d like to promote the ever humble but delicious wonton noodle:

    1. Hon’s Wun-tun House in Vancouver, Canada :

    2. The search for Cantonese comfort food in Hong Kong :

    Dear god, I’m so hungry now.

    • Theodora November 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm Reply

      You’re welcome to promote wonton noodles any time, Henry!

  3. Nancie November 22, 2012 at 12:37 pm Reply

    I can go for any of these, but the pho would be my favorite. Koreans are big on soup as well. A favorite here is Kimchi jigae (jigae actually translates to stew).

    • Theodora November 22, 2012 at 2:19 pm Reply

      LOVE kimchi! In fact, I’ve never tried a kimchi I didn’t like. So I’m guessing I would love a kimchi jigae — hot, sour and five-spicy, right?

      I’ve never been to Korea. Would love to, not least for the food…

  4. Lillie - @WorldLillie November 22, 2012 at 5:04 pm Reply

    YUM! Great list!!!!

    • Theodora December 1, 2012 at 2:37 am Reply

      Thank you!

  5. foodbuff April 15, 2013 at 5:49 am Reply

    Please don’t lump Feu and Pho together. That would be like lumping Feu with Kuai Tiao or lumping Pho with Kuy Teav. Beef noodle dishes exist in many Asian countries including China, Laos, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Feu is associated with Laos, while Pho is associated with Vietnam. They are two separate soups. Suggesting that Feu is a different spelling for a Vietnamese soup called Pho is as insulting as saying Pho is a different spelling for a Lao soup called Feu. If they were the same soup, don’t you think only Feu or Pho would exist as a name? A misconception by foreigners who wrongly lump Feu and Pho together does not mean that Laos and Vietnam no longer have the right to claim Feu and Pho, respectively, as their own soup. If you haven’t noticed, FEU and PHO are spelled with THREE TOTALLY DIFFERENT LETTERS and are associated with TWO DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. That would be like saying the English words TOO and TWO refer to the same thing. Feu is from Laos, while Pho is from Vietnam. Please don’t lump them together.

    • Theodora April 22, 2013 at 1:34 am Reply

      Firstly, as you’d know if you’d visited Laos, Laos has its own alphabet, so feu is not actually spelt with THREE TOTALLY DIFFERENT LETTERS, it’s just transliterated that way. Some etymologies suggest that the names come from the French word “feu”, which seems dubious to me as pho/feu is very different from pot-au-feu — but, to be honest, your argument’s a little like saying “frites” and “fries” are different because one has a “t” and the other doesn’t.

      Secondly, I didn’t say that feu is a different spelling for a Vietnamese soup named pho. I made it very clear that they are “associated with TWO DIFFERENT COUNTRIES”. Since your literacy seems to be right up there with your caps lock control, this is what I wrote: “Most associated with Vietnam, you’ll also find pho on the menu in Laos, under a slightly different spelling (feu).”

      Frankly, I’d find this moral outrage at my linking two soups from the same family that are treated in the same way and share names a little more convincing if you could actually explain the difference between “feu” and “pho”. I’ve linked the different types of Kuayteow/kuayteav together, and I’ve linked feu and pho together. I’ve eaten pho soup all over Vietnam and in Vietnamese restaurants outside Vietnam, and feu soup all over Laos, and, while it’s slightly more common for feu to be served with sugar as one of the available mixers than it is for pho to be served that way, I’m struggling to find any significant point of difference.

      Perhaps you could explain? Since you’re the expert, and all. A sentence like this would do fine: “Feu” is different from “pho” because Lao feu contains X and Vietnamese pho never contains X. Or: Lao feu is always made with X noodle and Vietnamese pho is always made with Y noodle.

  6. Kuni January 30, 2014 at 11:07 am Reply

    Since both are former French colonies, it’s obvious that Feu/Pho was derived from pot-au-feu, hence the pronunciation is the same. But since Laos kept it’s script, when written in western script, Laotians have to use the french spelling. This is also true in official business as the French language and script (historically, don’t know about now) was used for official business.

    As for the difference, there isn’t much that I notice except that Pho’s broth seems to be a bit thicker and clearer while the Laotian Feu doesn’t have a style to garnishing (typical bean sprouts, basil, jalepeno, culantro) it. Laotians will pack all sorts of vegies besides the garnish stated such as mint, lettuce, tomato, shrimp paste, long string beans, fresh thai chillies, sauteed garlic/chilli, etc.

    The thai version is of course tiao. But, imo, I’ve never had a decent Feu/Pho at a thai restaurant. Why did I throw my two cents in? Because the vietnamese would like westerners to believe that Feu/Pho is their thing. Even saw an article on a traveler insulting Laos saying Lao cuisine has no culture, that they copied Feu from the vietnamese when in fact Feu restaurants are in every corner throughout Laos for a reason, it was derived from the French stew. Laotians call it Feu.

    Another derivative: Laotian Khao Jee vs. vietmanese bun mi.

    • Theodora March 6, 2014 at 1:23 am Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Kuni. It IS very strongly associated with Vietnam, I think — I don’t know enough Vietnamese or Lao to comment on the French derivation, but that does seem logical.

      And, yes, you’re right — I’d say that Laos use a lot more garnish than the Vietnamese. Although I also noticed that there’s big differences in serving style between north and south Vietnam.

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